Kronos Quartet – Folk Songs
Nonesuch – 9 June 2017
Merge a classically trained quartet with all the longing and heart of contemporary folk legends, and, with an adventurous spirit and a whole lot of talent, you might create something like the latest release from Nonesuch Records, simply titled Folk Songs. The Kronos Quartet plays alongside four labelmates — Sam Amidon, Olivia Chaney, Rhiannon Giddens, and Natalie Merchant–to transport traditional folk songs to new arrangements.
Kronos Quartet demonstrates a wide-ranging appreciation of folk traditions worldwide together with the sort of technical mastery that makes even the most demanding riffs seem like effortless fun. The exploratory, artistic flair of members David Harrington, Jon Sherba (violins), Hank Dutt (viola), Sunny Yang (cello) has led to forty-seven albums dedicated to composers around the world. Their strings anchor each song in the album, weaving in and out of the vocals with dynamic style.
Long time folk legend Natalie Merchant kicks off the album, with heartbroken ballads ‘The Butcher’s Boy’ and ‘Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier.’ No one can convince me that I’ve relocated to the sooty streets of England more thoroughly than Natalie Merchant. She has three decades of renowned folk albums to her credit, first with her alternative band 10,000 Maniacs, and then with her solo albums.
Olivia Chaney joins the album next. Classically trained on the piano at the Royal Academy of Music, and self-taught on the guitar and Indian harmonium, Chaney’s musical range is impressive. Her collaborators cover many corners of folk music, including Robert Plant and the Decemberists. Her Nonesuch debut album in 2015 met with widespread praise. In Folk Songs, the strings swell as the heroine’s true love come into view in ‘Ramblin’ Boy’. The precision and control of the strings contrast with her soaring, sensuous delivery of ‘Montaigne, Que Tu Es Haute.’
Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops continues the theme of powerful women singer songwriters of folk. The foreboding vibrato and sustained minor chords in ‘Factory Girl’ match Rhiannon Giddens soulful melancholy. In ‘Lullaby’, the strength of the protagonist is evident against the delicate decrescendo of a lullaby.
Vermont born London-based, singer songwriter Sam Amidon made his Nonesuch debut in 2013 with Bright Sunny South. His tracks on the album were my favourite. The quartet is exquisite, reinforcing the lyrics with precisely crafted accompaniment. When ‘I See the Sign’, announces “loose horse in the valley” the violins actually whinny, and the “two tall angels” sing as two accented sweeps of the bow.
Folk Songs celebrates the best of folk music. While the songs are traditional, songs of love and loss still ring true. The album sounds like musical nights around a campfire with people from all corners of the world swapping their most soulful tunes, only if everyone at the campfire proved to be a classically trained legend.