So, this is the solo album of a virtuoso banjo player. (Banjoist?) But it's not a bluegrass or even a country album. Mike Savino uses this instrument and pushes it beyond what you think of as "uses for a banjo".
He is, i suppose, a banjo hipster. I mean, he has a big bushy beard and lives in New York. I, for one, hope that this is gluten-free, artisanal, locally-sourced banjo music!
But seriously, this is a really cool album. I read the press release and was highly skeptical, but i went and listened to the sample track that his promo company sent, and it was the catchy Being There. It's really good tune that swings and bounces happily. So i downloaded the record and put it on the phone.
Fast forward a few days and i get to this record in my listening list, and i think, "This is a cool soul album, but what is up with the odd guitarwork?" And then i looked up Tall Tall Trees on the internet and discovered that it was banjo, not a guitar. I would never have known from listening, but now that i know i can kind of hear it in the album.
But that is kind of the point here. Savino is just making music and he happens to use a banjo, but he is not constrained to the narrow definition of "banjo music" that so many people, myself included, would think about. He is pushing boundaries here, and the way he does that is by taking a traditionally Appalachian white country music instrument and using it to make music that bears a good debt to the African American secular spiritual tradition we call "soul music".
Now, any reader of this Zine will know that i love soul music. It's what i grew up with. However, my parents were soul fans and exposed me to it, but they were also white people from Pittsburgh, which is within Appalachia, so in a way what Savino is doing here is bring two parts of my musical heritage back together.
But none of that matters if the music is terrible. What i mean is: all that intellectual music crap i said above is something that we critics think about. What you, the reader, want to know is, "Is paying to listen to this worth my hard earned dollar?"
I think so. Let's go over the album, which packs 9 songs into just under 36 minutes.
The record kicks off with some kind of nighttime forest sample of crickets and some kind of monkey or bird or possibly a psychopath howling in the distance, then the banjo comes in. And it does sound like a banjo here, a little jangly happy melody and him tapping on the drum part. he sings lightly, and a guitar grinds. Backroads swings along like something Paul Simon would have done in the early 80s. It's that catchy.
The next song is janglier and kind of sparkly as Savino uses the banjo as a rhythm instrument. There is a guitar that soars around the voice, and the clearness of the guitar and the odd rhythms of the banjo make A Place To Call Your Own have shades of that bright Animal Collective style, where everything seems almost trebly.
Being There is next, and it starts with a happy little keyboard riff that, upon closer listening, is actually the banjo. I think. Savino adds in handclaps and singing for a really fun tune.
On CLC he sounds kind of country, the banjo more traditional and he sings with a southern accent. This is the only song i notice an accent in, so maybe it is affected. After a little while of this traditional bluegrass, the song kind pops and he does this strumming thing that reminds me of Over the Hills and Far Away, and it's odd to think he channeled Jimmy Page on a banjo! After that brief riff, the whole band is there and the Southern accent is gone as it transforms into a big pop tune.
Lost In Time and here Savino's singing reminds me of Nat King Cole, which is to say that it is really smooth and with precise pronunciation. The banjo jangles lightly behind the voice, in this lovely, slower song.
Bluegrass fiddle and fast banjo picking start off SeagullxEagle. The song grows denser from its bluegrass start, but the banjo remains at the center of this roaring fast song.
My least favorite track is up next, called The Riverbend. This song is pulsing bass and tinkling banjo, a strange spacey song that gets dense but, at the same time, never really seems to go anywhere. His vocals are really flat here too, which makes this song not work as well as the rest of the tunes here.
Things pick back up with So Predictable, a soul tune that channels Sam Cooke. Savino's voice is light and rich, the drums a funky little beat, and a general swing to the staccato of the banjo. I love this song.
And finally the album wraps up with title track Free Days. Savino picks a recognizable banjo riff that meanders slowly. It's a nice slow ballad to end the record on a lovely note.
So this album is not without a few stumbles, but there is a lot to like here. Besides, it's artisanal gluten-free banjo music, and what's not to like about that?