The Ladles new album — Springville Sessions — is “nice.” I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise by using such a mealy-mouthed term, but that is the word that kept entering my mind as I listened.
There is nothing wrong with “nice,” of course, and the album is certainly listenable. It is just that in this context it suggests something that promises more but doesn’t supply it. The music on the album is accomplished, the singing tuneful, the lyrics poetic. I just kept wanting some oomph.
The strength on the album is the instrumental work, which is hardly surprising given that the band — fiddler Lucia Pontoniere, guitarist Katie Martucci, and banjoist Caroline Kuhn, all singers — met at the New England Conservatory of Music. They were the only women in the contemporary improvisation program.
The instrumental acumen may actually be part of the problem — some of the tracks start out with banjo/fiddle/guitar intros that gear the listener up for something special, which doesn’t always arrive.
Take, for example “Baltimore.” Kuhn’s gentle banjo picking starts it off, taken up by some forceful fiddle from Pontoniere. But when the singing kicks in — “nice” as it is — the promising vibe sort of drifts away.
The stand out track, the opener “Sunset Pink,” manages to avoid this. The intro is haunting, again with slow picking and soothing strings. It then turns into a folky pop number with very smooth harmonics, but with the intro still present. The lyrics, as mentioned, tend to the poetic:
No pill no drink just the sun set pink
on the ships out in the harbor
See them blazing gold, like it was all foretold
your hand in mine feels stronger
“Thank You” is also a bit of a star track. It is something of a genre-bender — part bluegrass, part pop, with a touch of jazz vocals, particularly in the mid-stanzas:
I was so confused
The day I came to you
I had nothing to lose
Springville Sessions, incidentally, is a COVID-era album. The Ladles (the name comes from someone misspelling the earlier Ladies) quarantined, took tests, and then took up a three-week residency at the Springville Center for the Arts in New York.
This album was the result, which is nothing to sniff at in what has been an appalling year for many artists.
All three women take turns as lead singer, but they are in such harmony it is difficult to tell which song is sung by whom — a fact which gives a certain sameness to the album.
None of this is meant to put people off listening to Springville Sessions. Some will love it. I just kept thinking “This is nice, when is the punch coming?”