Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards – California Calling
Compass Records – 6 October 2017
Like many of the best “folk” bands, this talented quartet is much more of an uncategorisable and dynamic force, especially on their latest album California Calling. Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards will be familiar to many UK folk fans – they’ve been regular visitors in the last couple of years and have received a fair amount of critical acclaim. The band has made a big impression at festivals including Shetland and Orkney and at gigs across the country with their remarkable live performances, based on a foundation of immaculate acoustic playing and lush vocal harmonies.
Bandleader and songwriter Laura Cortese (fiddle, lead vocals) is ably backed by regular Dance Cards Valerie Thompson (cello) and Jenna Moynihan (fiddle, clawhammer banjo), joined on this recording by Natalie Bohrn on double bass. Cortese grew up in San Francisco and moved to Boston to study violin at the acclaimed Berklee College of Music. She has since enjoyed a busy career as a solo artist and in-demand guest instrumentalist. Both Jenna Moynihan and Valerie Thompson are also graduates of Berklee College and outstanding instrumentalists. Moynihan’s style is rooted in the Scottish tradition, with Appalachian influences. She too has toured worldwide, performing with artists including Bruce Molsky and Hayley Westenra. Thompson grew up a classical cellist and studied Irish step-dance and American clogging in her teens, and has also been a professional touring musician for many years with projects including prog band Fluttr Effect. Canadian bassist and frequent collaborator Bohrn has a wide-ranging musical CV including jazz-funk project Slow Spirit. The band as a whole seems to be more than the sum of its (distinguished) parts, transcending genre boundaries and transmitting a real feel-good passion for their music, with instrumental virtuosity complemented by a powerful rhythmic groove.
In live performance, The Dance Cards might best be described as a blend of folk/Americana and pop with touches of Cajun, bluegrass and old time. On California Calling that pop sensibility comes more to the fore, with additions including keyboards, percussion, glass harmonica, claps and stomps giving a slightly more modern feel to some of the songs, which lose none of their charm and power.
Opener The Low Hum was co-written by all four main players and with Moynihan’s mellow clawhammer banjo leading into glorious harmony vocals over layered strings, this is a gorgeous and dreamy start to the album. Title track California Calling kicks off with a catchy plucked strings intro and is a foot-tapper familiar from the Dance Cards’ live set. There are more beautiful harmonies in Three Little Words and Skipping Stone, with a plaintive feel to both these songs, which have a common theme of modern love and loss. The latter features those plucked strings which are a frequent and effective rhythmic device on the album. With no guitar in the band, the Dance Cards often use fiddle more creatively than is seen in many folky bands with a more conventional mix of instrumentation, and another key element of their sound is Thompson’s muscular cello playing. Hold On is a perfectly constructed slice of intelligent pop, with keyboards, handclaps and a funky bass line giving way to the strings which build to a driving crescendo.
Swing & Turn (Jubilee) is an old-time/bluegrass standard and this lovely version combines a quirky background loop of fiddle (at least I think it’s fiddle!) with lush vocals, moving into a more conventional old-time fiddle tune outro. Rhododendron is a two-minute master class in harmony singing over a subtle background of what sounds like keyboards, while Someday brings us back to rhythmic fiddle and powerful cello with more dreamy background tinklings. Stockholm is a corker, maybe the standout track on the album for me. A love song to the eponymous city in winter (“feel the rush, coming in from the cold”), it rocks along with an irresistible groove. Pace Myself is a radical change of pace – handclaps, shimmering bowed and plucked strings and Cortese’s sultry vocal echoed by a high harmony. If You Can Hear Me rounds off this impressive collection with a dose of true sweetness:
If you can hear me, give me a sign
There’s a receiver in your heart of mine
If you’ve got a problem, that’s what I’m here for
Wrap yourself up in my arms of yours
Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards are a class act and a musical force of nature. California Calling is an atmospheric album packed with gems, a splendid showcase for a close-knit group of creative musicians in their prime.
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Laura Cortese and The Dance Cards make two appearances at this year’s Celtic Connections in Glasgow with a headline show on 31st January and supporting Blazin’ Fiddles on 1st February.