CD Review: The Winterlings – ‘The Animal Groom’
The singular album that caught my ears and captured my imagination like no other throughout the summer of 2011 was The Animal Groom by the Winterlings, an impressive alt.folk duo that originated on the east coast. I consider it my great luck to have stumbled across them as they charmed a small crowd with a live performance at an outdoor Farmer’s Market in Seattle’s University District neighborhood on a sunny Saturday morning this past July. And from the first notes that wafted by – male and female harmonizing with a natural to-die-for tone, accompanied by perfectly understated guitar- and ancient-sounding fiddle-work – I was taken with the immediate sense that they were covering obscure 19th century folk songs. Stark Appalachian ballads that had previously escaped my notice somehow was the initial thought. But that analysis would quickly prove to be incorrect.
The Winterlings – Amanda Birdsall (guitar, fiddle, banjo, harmonica, vocals) and Wolff Bowden (guitar, harmonica, vocals) – took turns providing intriguing introductory comments explaining the topical theme or background origins of each impending song. Thus it turned out they had actually penned each tune. I was floored. After sitting down to witness the remainder of their set, I then stepped up to compliment them and buy their two CDs. The older disc, On The Night You Were Born, had been recorded during a former incarnation as the Orphan Trains, and it showcased a number of promising tunes (including “Calling You Home,” “You & I,” “Jenell,” and “If I Was Away”) as captured in a delightfully minimalistic, and self-recorded, setting. But the more recent 11-song disc is the undeniable gem.
The Animal Groom (Redwood River Records) advanced the duo’s sound considerably by augmenting their considerable skills with those of a few select musicians who contributed tasteful dobro, viola, upright bass, and occasional drums to various tunes. This album, which was produced by Rodney Whittenberg at Melodyvision Studios back in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, yielded a batch of recordings that simply should not be overlooked – unless you are at all reluctant to have some new songs haunt both your waking hours and dreams as they have mine ever since first hearing them.
Among the finest are: “Bird In The Corn” (featuring Birdsall’s unforgettably rustic vocals and American goth-esque lyrics which, in part, draw a parallel between the common struggles to survive shared by us humans and other critters), and Bowden’s “Long May You Live,” a rousing mid-tempo salute to the better souls among us. Then too, there is Birdsall’s heart-breaking “Wildflowers” (about the resiliency of neglected/abused children, and the angelic ways of those who help them); Bowden’s sweetly romantic paean to the give-and-take nature of a healthy marriage, “Take Give;” and Birdsall’s gentle and poetic tour-de-force love-song, “Flying Kites By Moonlight.”
But it is perhaps Bowden’s “Lauren’s Forest” that best reveals his particular background as a successful published poet. Accompanying this stunning (again, goth-esque) piece are many of the over-arching lyrical themes that the duo jointly explore in their respective works. Themes – as I noted earlier in a dashed-off posting elsewhere – “about a range of earthly affairs including birth, death, family, marriage, beloved and/or forsaken children, bravery, longing, regrets, and sadness. Not to mention tales of joy, romance, friendship, nature, animals, and celebration. But the one constant in all of these lyrics is their uplifting, humane spirit.”
Now, as summer has slipped into autumn and winter hovers on the horizon, The Animal Groom remains a rootsy Americana favorite on both CD player and iPod, and I already look forward to next spring when the Winterlings will complete their migration pattern and return to the Pacific Northwest. The website of these excellent song-crafters is worth checking out – http://www.winterlings.com/TheWinterlings.htm – as are their various videos on YouTube.