Finally, there’s an album paying long-overdue homage to practical, yet rustic bathroom panelling. What’s that? It’s not? Fortunately, Tongue / Groove is a paired album set from phenomenally talented, multi-award-winning Canadians, The Andrew Collins Trio. Their hard-to-pigeonhole fusion sound is sometimes referred to as ‘chambergrass’ but absorbs such a broad range of influences, it’s hard to know where to start. There’s bluegrass, obviously, plus flecks of country and bold splashes of swing, lounge and jazz. Here and there are Celtic touches, hints of Spain, Greece even, as well as playful sparks of popular music.
For a trio, they make a big sound across a hugely varied repertoire, all played with a relaxed and fluid skill. James McEleney’s supple expressive upright bass is the backbone for Mike Mezzatesta (guitar, mandolin, octave violin) and Andrew Collins. Collins is a staggering mandolin player, able to achieve extraordinary speed, variety and nuance, whilst also being equally fluent on mandocello, mandola, guitar and violin. And that’s just on this album: the band appears to switch and shape-shift between instruments and roles with absolute assurance and ease.
It’s an incredibly polished album pair, with Tongue, naturally, giving tongue to the songs within. A selection of Collins’ favourites, taking in The Hollies via Nick Drake and a couple of Roger Millers, plus a couple of his own compositions, it’s something of a departure from a band mostly known for instrumental music.
Collins brings a strong, slightly gritty vocal that gives suitably moody substance to Drake’s ‘Cello Song’. Elsewhere, McEleny provides vocal support and harmonies, as on fellow Canadian, Kevin Breit’s ‘Nothing About Us’, which at first sounds incongruously ‘modern’ next to more old-timey songs, but soon settles comfortably into place. In an album of covers, the trio’s startling but entirely brilliant reworking of The Hollies’ ‘King Midas In Reverse’ was a revelation.
As a songwriter, Collins seems to have plenty up his sleeve, too. ‘Coming Into Hard Times Blues’ demonstrates a Tom Lehrer-like sardonic wit. The intense, sawing violins of ‘Black Veil’ (co-written by Collins) lend drama to a darkly murderous tale (a strong contrast with the absurdly chirpy stabbing in ‘Katy Dear’).
It seems that the band felt their audience would expect instrumentals, so they delivered that as well, recording the Groove album to partner Tongue. Groove is a perfect, laid-back lazy Sunday soundtrack, prominently featuring Collins compositions like the gloriously mardy, low-slung ‘The Grumpus’, madly contagious ‘Badabada Ba Ba’ and the subtle mood changes of the Radiohead-ish ‘Lullaby For Ken’. Another surprising, yet oddly successful cover emerges as Pink Floyd’s ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’ gets stitched together with the traditional ‘Ship In The Clouds’.
Altogether, there’s so much going on in these two albums – in breadth and variety of styles, in musical skill – that it’s rather breath-taking. Luckily, just another of the talents this trio has is to make their work feel entirely natural, almost slouchily comfortable and deceptively easy on the ear. Tongue and Groove are worthwhile additions to any collection.
Artists’ website: www.andrewcollinstrio.com
‘Coming Into Hard Times Blues’ – live: