The Newcastle-based band Assembly Lane are Tom Kimber (mandolin, harmony vocal), Niles Krieger (fiddle, harmony and lead vocals), Bevan Morris (double bass), and Matthew Ord (guitar, lead and harmony vocals). While their CD Northbound – due for release on November 10th 2017 – draws on both British and North American traditional material, the arrangements lean generally towards the North American: indeed, if it were not for the absence of a banjo player, this would be a classic bluegrass line-up, and their sound generally reflects that sensibility. The songs are all traditional, but there are three instrumental tracks credited to Tom Kimber and one to bluegrass mandolin player Bill Monroe.
- ‘The Hills Of Mexico’ is one of those slightly morose songs in which the singer regrets a poor choice of occupation: lyrically, it has some lines that resemble ‘The Buffalo Skinners’. Nicely arranged, though sometimes the backing distracts from the vocal. The tune used here resembles the one recorded by Roscoe Holcomb.
- ‘Ain’t No More Cane’ is the well-known-prison song: the arrangement of this version, however, is closer to old-timey than to the Texas prison farms. It appears to owe much to the Band’s arrangement, though a little more sprightly and with much the same verses but in a different order. Nice harmonies, too. However, it doesn’t really convey the brutality of the environment from which the song arose.
- ‘Mind The Gap’ is an attractive instrumental set with a bluegrass feel, but credited to mandolinist Tom Kimber. Mandolin, fiddle, bass and guitar are all featured prominently in the course of the track.
- ‘The Fair Flower Of Northumberland’ is a familiar version of the border ballad (Child 9), but rendered here with a bluegrass-y arrangement that gives it some freshness.
- Title track ‘Northbound’ is an attractive tune by Tom Kimber with some impressive unison work from fiddle and mandolin, as well as spotlighting skilful lead work from fiddle, mandolin, and guitar as well as the usual solid basslines from Bevan Morris.
- ‘Northbound’ segues almost seamlessly into Kimber’s ‘Fivefold’. While there are sections in ‘Fivefold’ that recall tunes that are staples of Celtic dance music, there’s a fascinating individuality and complexity to the interplay between the instruments over jazzy bass riffs.
- ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ uses the tune from Christie’s Traditional Ballad Airs used on Nic Jones’s 1970 recording and many subsequent recordings. It’s a fine tune, and this version does it justice, vocally and instrumentally.
- On ‘1845’, sometimes known as ‘The Morning of 1845’, fiddler Niles Krieger gets to take the vocal lead, and does so with credit.
- ‘Road To Columbus’ is the classic Bill Monroe tune, and the band does it justice.
- ‘Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Mourn?’ – more often heard as ‘Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan’ – is particularly notable for the rich acapella harmonies of the opening section, and the bowed bass and fiddle of the next section, but the athletic playing and changes of pace throughout ensure that the listener’s interest never flags. A delightfully upbeat end to the CD.
For me, the best part of this CD is the instrumental work. The press release suggests that the album was essentially recorded live as an ensemble, which perhaps explains its freshness, yet the arrangements are impressively complex: clearly these are excellent musicians who are very comfortable playing together. The vocals are very competent and appropriate to the arrangements, and while there are one or two songs that we have, perhaps, heard a little too much of over the years, all are well performed. This is an album that delivers good music and promises more. And I’d love to hear them live.
Artist’s website: www.assemblylane.com
‘Mind The Gap’: