Launched at their sold out show at Celtic Connections, the title (wittily written so on the sleeve) of the quartet’s follow up to 2022’s Unseen Course refers to how acoustic bassist Pierce Black has swapped New Zealand to join banjoist Julia Zech (the duo being the core line up and the origin of the name) in Cologne where the band’s based as well as how fiddler Pepita Emmerichs (with whom Scottish guitarist Theodore Barnard also plays as Rain Of Animals) divides her time between Europe and Australia.
Musically, they might be best generally described as bluegrass with a Celtic twist although the album opener, ‘Labour Of Love’, from whence the title comes, has a more folksy flavour with its pulsing banjo and fiddle flourishes on a number which, gathering pace as it goes speaks of a relationship where while “we are destined to disagree…I’ll stay right by your side”.
The shuffling ‘Square One’ breaks out the bluegrass more obviously as they sing about getting back to basics, living in the here and now and not making life harder than it need to be and knowing when to let go. On the other hand, Zech taking lead, the banjo plucked and rippling ‘Old Flame’ is about regrets over a lost relationship (“yesterday our dream was shattered on the ground/And I take all the blame/Can’t say I’m not ashamed or haunted”), that sense of things being offkey captured in the old timey sway of the duetted ‘Wrong Chord’ wherein the musical form echoes the lyrics about being out of tune and so forth.
Zech back on lead, voice soaring, banjo and mandolin trilling, the laid back swayalong ‘Prelude’ sketches that moment when friendship blossoms into something else before Emmerichs’ fiddle and Zech’s banjo let fly on the racing ‘Blue Light Antics’ about being pulled up by the cops (“Got no ID, got no idea”) which amusingly suggests getting pulled over for speeding while trying to outrun the devil.
‘Hold On To Your Love’ is more of a persistent chug with Zech reassuring that the heart will heal and “tomorrow’s smile is on its way”, Black harmonising on the title refrain. And so it ends with the staccato bluegrass ‘Concrete Mountain’, Emmerichs giving it some gypsy jazz fiddle and Barnard’s guitar jerking round the rhythm, followed with the bass drone and hummed intro of ‘Sun And Moon’, a wheezing mountain music hymnal come benediction that, the planets portrayed as star crossed lovers with day and night as metaphors, it shifts from a contented vison of settling down to a parting of the ways. Not an album where the songs stick in the mind perhaps, but one that certainly keeps you listening through from start to finish.
Artists’ website: www.stereonaked.com
‘Wrong Chord’ – live:
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