Honing their duo work to a fine point, like a knife whittling a stick, Pacific Northwest pair Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer here discard all band embellishments for their third album Off-Grid Lo-Fi, a logical progression from second album Maritime (review here) which was in itself pared down from the ensemble playing on their debut disc, Seed Of A Pine. Here the pair have gone, literally, off-grid, holed up on a sparsely populated island in the San Juan archipelago (as close to Canadian shores as you get in the States), reliant on wind and solar power for what is an intimate album, their voices and harmonies well to the fore but warm and inviting. The instrumentation is sparse but well spread out with Fer adding banjo, cello and some invigorating grungy electric guitar scrubs to her undoubted acoustic guitar skills, her instrumental Trainwreck sounding akin to the work of Bert Jansch, McGraw’s tabla work reinforcing memories of the cross pollination so beloved of acoustic visionaries back in the sixties.
McGraw and Fer are both fine writers. McGraw perhaps the more “conventional” of the pair with his Creatures We Are, a seemingly autobiographical tale of their time on the island delivered with a deep romanticism. Change my Ways however is a sweeping folk rock melodrama infused with elemental symbolism that opens with a gently strummed guitar and his crooning before it’s swept up in a fuzz driven guitar maelstrom much in the manner of American troubadours who discovered rock’n’roll in the late sixties. Fer wanders further afield. Magnolia Trees, Need A Mountain and Stuck portray her as an excellent singer and songwriter with forebears as varied as Suzanne Vega and Diana Jones. However her roots dig deeper reaching into an atavistic Americana primitivism, her banjo wandering alone at points in Need A Mountain while Keeps You Breathing and Deliver My Piece both see her scrabbling on electric guitar, an intriguing mix of PJ Harvey and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Way Out Here caps this as Fer scrapes away all but her banjo on a riposte of sorts to McGraw’s idyll on Creatures We Are, a chilling number only enlivened by the up-tempo harmony breaks.
There’s some hardscrapple backwoods delight on the energetic Eggs For Honey which recently premiered on FRUK and the album closes with the dappled greenery of Stuck, the pair in fine harmony on guitar and voices, the mics capturing each chord change as fingers slide along the fretwork. As we said above, an intimate recording and ultimately a brave one as this pared down delight, see-sawing between delicate picking and grizzled fuzz, might confuse some folk.
Off-Grid Lo-Fi is Out Now – Order via Amazon
Photo Credit: Jen Repp Photography