If their last album, Maritime, was pared down compared to the band feel of their debut, Off-Grid Lo-Fi is positively minimalist. As per the title, the Washington State- based duo wrote and recorded it on one of the near uninhabited San Juan islands in northwest Washington, the nearest neighbours being four donkeys in the fields outside the house, during what Fer calls one of their regular hibernations from the social whirl of touring. On top of that, it was recorded entirely using wind and solar power, so to get the best out of a session they had to wait until it was windy. This time round there was no outside producer and no other musicians, everything on the album being played by McGraw and Fer, including the latter on a cello she found in a closet and which supplies the bass. With no computers and no editing, the aim was to capture the emotional edge rather than technical polish.
McGraw wrote three of the twelve tracks, on which he also sings lead, first up being the opener, ‘Mantra’, a smoky folk blues with shifting and sliding time signatures and a rhythm that echoes the title. There’s a similar mood to ‘Change My Ways’, the hushed opening gradually giving way to a fusion of strummed acoustic and Fer’s distorted electric guitar as McGraw’s voice gathers in power. His final contribution, ‘Creatures We Are’, is a gently strummed acoustic waltzer about retreating to the simple life amid nature, Fer providing harmonies as well as the moody electric guitar flourishes.
As evident from her first track, the banjo-based ‘Mangolia Trees’, Fer has a sharper, more forceful voice than McGraw’s baritone, but she can dial it down for softer moments such as the sparsely backed ‘Need A Mountain’, though this too sees her punching it up on the repeated “you’ve got a mountain, we all need a mountain” bluegrass gospel mantra that brings the song to a close.
Pizzicato banjo and hand percussion underpins the jittery, urgent ‘Shake’ where an almost Latin rhythm insinuates its way into proceedings as Fer tumbles through the lyrics while McGraw provides counterpoint vocals behind the refrain. Raw throbbing bass lines, distorted electric and resonant strummed acoustic crank it up on the bluesy ‘Deliver My Peace’, changing sonic tack for the bucolic piano-tinted ‘Way Out Here’, fingers sliding on steel strings suggesting birds or insects trilling as, again, they bend the rhythm and melody in and out of different shapes as the song proceeds.
Fer’s a highly acclaimed guitarist and the intricate instrumental ‘Trainwreck’ affords a showcase of her skills, starting out with restrained bluesy picking before launching into a fierce, galloping flurry with guitar body percussive slaps that has an almost flamenco nature. This, in turn, gives way to the bluesy undulations of ‘Keeps You Breathing’ that blends folk and jazz into another intricate sonically ebbing and flowing arrangement as it builds to a crescendo and fade.
Their fondness for cross rhythms is also evident on ‘Eggs For Honey’, a banjo-driven, clicking percussion song inspired by two farms trading their produce, something of a refreshing throwback in a world driven by the financial imperative. The album ends with the fingerpicked acoustic and American traditional folk influenced ‘Stuck’, the title mirrored in the haltingly sung lines in the final stretch.
Given the environment in which it was written and recorded, you might have expected a degree of inventive and musical limitations, what you get is by far their most adventurous, ambitious and artistically inventive work to date. They should hibernate more often.
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‘Trainwreck’ – live: