APRIL VERCH – The Newpart (Slab Town Records STR15-01)

verchLet’s get my reservation out of the way first. Verch is an acclaimed stepdancer and, as such, her nimble footwork forms part of several of the numbers here. However, one track, ‘The Gilchrist’ features only that. For two and a half minutes. Now, while watching her perform it may be a thrilling experience entirely, you wouldn’t expect a CD of ‘Riverdance’, for example, to feature a track of just the unaccompanied sound of Irish dancing. Of course, it’s perfectly fair to argue that, since Verch’s dancing is being used as an instrument in itself, the track is no different from a drum solo. But then I’m no fan of drum solos either.

That aside, there’s much to recommend Verch’s tenth album, one stripped back to the basics of upright bass, guitar, clawhammer banjo, mandolin, and fiddle and frequently drawing on American popular music, vaudeville, for example, from the early 20th century. The sprightly instrumental opening track, ‘Belle Election’, for instance, is taken from the repertoire of legendary Appalachian fiddlers Emmett Lundy and John Patterson. Similarly with the other traditional instrumentals, the more stately ‘Cruel Willie’ is taken from Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Verch and the band mixing up the different parts as per the source, ‘Polska From Kumla’ is a traditional polonaise learned from the work of Swedish fiddler Olof Larsson and ‘Midnight Wheeler’ brings together a version of ‘Midnight Serenade’, an old time American tune by J.W. ‘Babe’ Spangler, and ‘Stern Wheeler ‘by legendary Metis fiddler Andy Dejarlis.

Dust-To-Digital, a record company that specialises in documenting historical recordings of American popular music, was also the source for some of the vocal material, including ‘Montana Call’, a song about the call of home learned from a 1931 recording by jazz pianist and vocalist Seger Ellis, the traditional bluegrass spiritual ‘Dry Bones’. Elsewhere, waltz-time love song ‘If You Hadn’t Gone Away’ by Lew Brown, Ray Henderson and Billy Rose was learned from a 1925 recording by Nick Lucas, the ragtime feel ‘It Don’t Do Nothing But Rain’ comes from a 1936 recording by Lew Childre and the guitar picked old school country ‘I Heard The Bluebirds Sing’, a duet with banjo player Cody Walters, was a 1956 hit for The Browns written by Alberta hillbilly singer Hod Pharis.

The album’s other ‘cover’ is slightly more recent, in as much as ‘Bring Your Clothes Back Home’ is a sprightly, lyrically playful fiddle-led blues 1989 number by John Hartford (another stepdancer) that impressively features Verch singing, fiddling and dancing at the same time with Walters accompanying on bass.

The three remaining numbers are all originals, Verch and Walters collaborating on high lonesome fiddle and guitar slow waltzer ‘It Makes No Difference to Me’ while she takes solo credit for album closer, ‘This Melody’, a mix of fiddle and unaccompanied vocal that pays tribute to the power of music as a form of expression, and the instrumental title track, a lively fiddle, banjo and stepdancing tune named after an extension to the family home built the year she was born and which became her music room. In many ways, then, the album is a love letter to the music that shaped her and to a rich American heritage that remains alive through people like Dust-To-Digital and Verch herself.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: http://aprilverch.com/

‘Belle Election’, the first single from The Newpart:

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