CD Review – Della Mae – “I Built This Heart”
Della Mae – I Built This Heart
Released: September 2011
By W.J. Hallock
When Della Mae members “Sunny,” “Captain,” “Juggles” and “Rosy” decided to invite “Squawk” to join forces with them, did they already know how magical the result was going to be? Did “Squawk” have any idea how good a home she was going to? It’s been said that #1, all good things happen for a reason….. and #2, that where a person is, is usually right where they’re supposed to be. It must be true, because these five musicians really sound like they all belong together! Go ahead…. go to their web site, order your copy of their new CD, “I Built This Heart,” and ENJOY! Their web site is the only place you can get it. It’ll be some of the best money you’ve spent in a while, and your “ears” will love you for it!
Della Mae put out a promo video for their Kickstarter program on YouTube. It was a very ingenious and entertaining introduction to just who Della Mae is, including their nick-names. When they hit Q Division Studios, Somerville, MA. to start this CD, they made sure they were READY! The CD shows their preparation was precise and exacting. It also shows that they put everything they had on the line, played and sang with high expectations of themselves and each other and enjoyed every second of it. It’s nice to see hard work rewarded with success.
Now, about those “names…..” in actuality, “Sunny, the happiest woman in showbiz,” is Amanda Jean Kowalski. Her bass playing is the V8 engine driving Della Mae, and her impact is a vital key to their success. Her playing is fresh, invigorating, complex and/or simple depending on the song and the arrangement. On “Aged Pine,” her playing holds the ¾ time signature perfectly in place, then during the instrumental solos she uses her bow to add another dimension that gives a classical fullness to the song. A very nice touch. She makes this band powerful. She makes this CD move!
“Captain” Kimber Ludiker, a two time National Fiddle Champion, uses her five string violin to cut a wide swath of dynamics through the CD. Her kickoff to the very first song, “Jamie Dear,” sets the pace for what’s to come throughout this twelve song journey. Fast and furious is no problem for her, but, its her slower, more quiet work that will hit you in the heart. Listen to “Aged Pine.“ On three of the songs, she and Brittany Haas, fiddler for the band “Crooked Still,” nail down some twin fiddle lines that are amazingly tight. “My Heart’s Own Love,“ by Hazel Dickens, and “The Most“ sparkle. But their first and second fiddle parts on “Ballad Of A Lonely Woman,“ are mournfully beautiful. It’s plain to hear why Kimber was the 2009 AND 2010 National Champ. She is that good, and she earned it with her talent.
“Juggles” Jenni Lyn Gardner, on mandolin, plays her solos and fills as crisp, clean and sharp as a straight razor. And her rhythm playing has a very unique “jangely” quality to it that really is different….. a GOOD different. Maybe it’s her technique, or her instrument, or it could be the expertise of engineer Erick Jaskowiak working his magic in the control room that make her playing so warm. Or…. a combination of all the above. Her vocals, along with Celia and Courtney, give the girls solid three part harmony that is dead on, pitch perfect and in sync. They have made the effort to really listen to each other and get their vocals emotionally right also.
“Rosy,” guitarist Courtney Hartman, is a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and plays with both practiced calculation and an innate originality perfectly suited for Della Mae. She adds a sparkling dissonance to her lead work on the old Weaver’s tune “Bowling Green,” and then on “Down To You” and “Jamie Dear,” does even more flat-pickin’ that is sure to please die hard bluegrass fans. The tone, balance and sweetness of her guitar itself is very special, and again engineer Erick has taken the time to “tweak” it’s sound beautifully. Sometimes, it’s just Courtney singing harmony with Celia, and she sings every bit as well as she plays. She picks up on Celia’s little vocal nuances instantly and matches them word for word, and breath for breath. They make it look effortless. Another nice touch!
Celia Woodsmith, aka “Squawk,” is singer, rhythm guitarist and song-writer of ten of the twelve cuts here. And just where these songs came from is a mystery….. Is Celia an educated literature student with a PHD in sorrow and sadness? Is she the re-incarnation of some famous poet from the past? Does she just have a very vivid imagination and a special gift with words? What ever the case, she weaves captivating and articulate story lines set to unforgettable melodies as sweet as the lyrics. Have you ever heard the word “unabashed” used in a bluegrass song? Me either….. Listen close and you’ll hear very interesting word play, like this, all through the CD. She shows a depth of feeling and wisdom in her writing that is fundamentally way beyond her years. In this set of songs, she is putting the music world on notice that she has the potential to be an outstanding and influential song writer for years to come. She might easily become one of her generations premier song-writers. Listen to “Ballad Of A Lonely Woman,” and you’ll hear how well she captures the loneliness and despair of old age. Each original song on this CD is a literary adventure!
Part of what makes Celia’s songs so ingratiating is how well she sings them. Her acappella treatment on “Ballad Of A Lonely Woman” is as strong, assertive and powerful as any female voice out there. But, I don’t think she has reached her prime or tapped all her possibilities yet. My guess is that she has at least 10% more raw power at the top end of her range, and another 10% of intensely quiet intimacy at the bottom end that she isn’t even using yet. There is a hesitation…..a fearful stiffness is present…..for some reason, she’s holding back. Give her time in the studio to learn just how much power and passion she has, and she will be even better than she is right now. As she is learning to be more adventurous and power Up, she will also realize she has the talent and emotional soul to power DOWN to a level of communicating that will mesmerize her listeners even more.
Producer Austin Nevins and engineer Jaskowiak have done a really good job on this CD, but they need to concentrate on Celia’s voice to help make her an even better interpreter of her most deeply held inner feelings. Singing with Laurie Lewis on two of the songs here, she has an ideal, excellent and knowledgable confidante she can lean on. On “Aged Pine,” Celia and Laurie sing so well together that they even have their vocal vibratos in time. Canadian singer Emma Beaton, of “Joy Kills Sorrow,” also does a marvelous job of harmonizing with Celia on “Polk County” and “The Most.” On the latter, the vocal ending is terrific. In all honesty, “The Most” is terrific in every way! It’s a favorite. And to reiterate, her vocals with Courtney and Jenni Lyn are dynamite also.
On four of the CD’s songs, guest banjo player Alison Brown jumps in and kicks the already hot instrumental tracks into over drive. As one of the world’s elite banjo virtuoso’s, and owner of Compass Records out of Nashville, her appearance here is just one more sign that Della Mae is attracting music insider attention. A recent three week tour of Germany also adds international attention to their resume. And with their inclusion on the Telluride list of performers for 2012, they are gaining momentum… FAST! With “I Built This Heart,” Della Mae has kicked the door wide open, and they now have the bluegrass and acoustic music world’s attention…… Good for them! They deserve to be heard, and enjoyed.
About the Reviewers:
W.J. Hallock is a musician, entertainer and songwriter with years of recording, stage and writing experience. Contact him at: Reviews@PrescriptionBluegrass.com