Cardboard Fox is a Bath-based band featuring musicianship of the highest order and some impressive original songwriting by four young musicians flexing their artistic muscles, as they stretch beyond their bluegrass roots. Although Cardboard Fox was formed in late 2013, these musicians have been playing together in various collectives and more informal settings for considerably longer. Charlotte Carrivick (guitar/vocals) and Laura Carrivick (fiddle/vocals) are well known in UK folk and bluegrass circles from their band The Carrivick Sisters (occasionally featuring John Breese, who also plays double bass for Cardboard Fox). All three are prodigious multi-instrumentalists in addition to their credited instruments on this album. Between them Laura and Charlotte are exceptional players of the mandolin, clawhammer banjo, fiddle, dobro and guitar and John is one of the finest 5-string banjo players in the UK, as well as a gifted classical guitarist. But for Cardboard Fox they’ve settled on this particular four-piece set-up, with the addition of the prodigiously talented Joe Tozer on mandolin. The priority here seems to be all about serving the songs themselves with tasteful playing and original arrangements, and they succeed very well, showcasing an increased maturity as creative artists and song (and tune) writers. With the exception of three covers, the vast majority of the material is self-penned, and songwriting credits are pretty evenly shared among Tozer and the two Carrivicks (with occasional contributions by Breese).
Out of Mind starts strongly with driving mandolin from Joe and imaginative double bass by John, soon joined by twins Charlotte and Laura (guitar and fiddle respectively) on the slightly menacing but catchy More Than You and Me. I can’t quite work out whether it’s about a break-up or getting back together, but the largely positive lyrics are neatly subverted by the ominous-sounding chord progression. My favourite song comes early, with the second and (almost) title track Out of Sight is Out of Mind quickly passing the old grey whistle test. It’s lilting, wistful and ever so slightly reminiscent of the best of Nickel Creek, with a gorgeous fiddle riff and delicate guitar and mandolin. It’s the standout track for me but having said that, there are many more high points to come. Next up, the original tune Gone, Not Forgotten has a more traditional feel, and can stand with the best of modern bluegrass/newgrass. All four band members get to show off the expressive side of their instruments and they also blend beautifully as a collective. There’s a radical change of approach for Girls Chase Boys. Apparently this song was a recent mainstream hit by Ingrid Michaelson (not something that would normally cross my radar!). In the hands of Cardboard Fox it’s a catchy little crossover number, with extra rhythm added by Josh Clark (talented percussionist as well as producer of the album). While on one hand it’s a way to show off the band’s quirky side, on the other they treat the exercise seriously, using all their musical nous to create a perfectly crafted bit of bubblegum indie pop. Sore Loser is another up tempo number, introduced by some sharp mandolin chopping by Joe, with John throwing interesting shapes on the double bass behind the vocals.
Hiding in Hi Vis is a scorching fiddle tune that rocks along nicely. After the fiddle and mandolin take us round the first time, the full band piles in and off we go. Charlotte and Joe show us what they can each do with a flatpick, as the guitar and mandolin solo in unison, then Laura lets fly on the fiddle again with a soaring break up and down the fingerboard. This really is an excellent, jaunty tune with a particularly catchy B part. Believe Me slows things down with a simple melody and some melancholy fiddle. While it’s less of an instrumental showcase, it still features fabulously tasteful playing in the service of an affecting and memorable song, and is an especially effective showcase for Charlotte and Laura’s sibling harmonies.
Speaking of the singing, the vocals on Out of Mind are tuneful and pleasing without being showy. The Carrivicks’ voices can sound rich, sweet or husky depending on the context, and their harmony singing (a feature of many of the songs here) is particularly strong, as you’d expect from twin sisters who have been singing together for many years. According to producer Clark (of Bath-based independent Get Real Audio), lead singing duties were pretty evenly split between Charlotte and Laura. With no further clues on the liner notes, I wasn’t able to distinguish between them enough on first (and second) listen to declare who is singing lead on which track! John Breese adds subtle low harmonies on a couple of tracks too. The aforementioned Josh Clark also deserves a shout out for his excellent production which allows all the instruments and voices to shine through, with a clean but organic sound. He’s the first choice for almost all the hot young roots bands I know, and it’s obvious why.
Of the remaining songs, my favourite is Couldn’t Find the Time – a little gem which is the only song here to feature John Breese’s talents on the bluegrass banjo. It’s a corker, rolling along with a kind of drive time radio feel, and subtle but winning glimpses of the superb musicianship on offer on all the lead instruments. For the remainder of the record, Breese performs an unselfish role holding down the low end but with many flashes of technical and musical brilliance he’s quite evidently more than your run of the mill bass player. There are also a couple more covers further down the running order, including Dirk Powell’s popular Waterbound. This rendition features a sparse arrangement of voice and bass at the outset, building up the instrumentation into an exquisitely pitched fiddle solo. After a lovely swinging rhythm behind this middle section, the band breaks it down again, plucked bass and fiddle followed by some lovely bowing and a stealth ending. It’s a hugely creative and satisfying arrangement of this classic song. The album closes with their own take on Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright. As we all know, Dylan can be terribly overdone, but on the other hand the best covers of his work are classics in their own right (think Sarah Jarosz). This is a sprightly version with an effervescent fiddle solo near the start, and is a pleasing way to close the album.
This is an extremely strong collection of songs and tunes from a band that appears to be hitting a creative peak already, even though it’s only their first full length album. Cardboard Fox reveal themselves as more than the sum of their parts, ranging effortlessly across genres and achieving a highly listenable recorded sound (not always the case on “folk” releases, from even the best live performers). Top notch musicianship and singing coupled with songwriting excellence make Out of Mind a highly impressive debut. A just-announced showcase slot at the IBMA’s World Of Bluegrass jamboree in North Carolina this September shows that word is spreading already.
Out of Mind is released on 13th May, pre-order via cardboardfox.co.uk
Don’t miss them on tour, details here: cardboardfox.co.uk/tour