Born in South Africa, raised in Philadephia and now resident in Colorado, Gregory Alan Isakov has been quietly making a name for himself as a weaver of hushed, at times ethereal, acoustic folk-pop balladry as well as a producer of note. In 2013, he performed with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, a collaboration that has now led to his revisiting songs from his past three album, lushly rearranged for the orchestra alongside his regular band of Jeb Bows (fiddle), Philip Parker (cello), Steve Varney (electric guitar/banjo), John Grigsby (upright bass) and Max Barcelow (drums), part recorded at Starling Farm in Boulder and part in Denver’s Boettcher Concert Hall.
There is one new number, Liars, apparently something of a live favourite and the only one not written by Isakov himself, but rather Austin-based songwriter Ron Scott. Even so, it fits right in, opening quietly with muted acoustic guitar, plucked strings and a wearied, semi-spoken vocal that underlines the Cohen influences before things suddenly swell, both musically and vocally, around the three minute mark.
As I say, everything else are revisitations, but, while some, such as the Paul Simon-like Saint Valentine and the acoustic opening of Amsterdam, hew closely to the original, albeit given a symphonic layer (the strings on the latter sounding like something from a widescreen 50s romantic epic), others have been slightly recast (fans will note the subtle differences between the old and new openings of Dandelion Wine), giving them more than just a new musical coat of paint.
The originals are, of course, sparse affairs while these are sumptuously elaborate, but the orchestra enhances rather than overpowers the emotion of the songs or the light melancholia of Isakov’s vocals. For those familiar with The Weatherman, This Empty Northern Hemisphere and That Sea, The Gambler albums, other reworkings include the summery pastoral ripple of Big Black Car, the banjo-accompanied six minute chamber folk The Stable Song with Julie Davis on harmonies, a more drum heavy arrangement of That Sea, The Gambler, waltzer Living Proof (another Simon-like number) with its pulsing cello and the ebb and flow of symphonic tides and, taking a different approach to the original’s distant echoey treated vocals, album closer Unwritable Girl.
Symphonic re-workings can be bloated and bombastic affairs, think of Elton John’s live outing with the Melbourne Symphony, the same orchestra’s complicity in the utterly redundant live symphonic version of Bat out of Hell or the hideous sound of Aerosmith doing Dream On for example, but in sympathetic hands and with complementary rather than competitive arrangements, they can be quite magnificent. This is one such.
Released June 10 via Suitcase Town Music
For US tour dates accompanied by The Ghost Orchestra / with Andrea Gibson visit: gregoryalanisakov.com/tour