We Made It HomeMaker/Mender Records MM1002
For more information regarding Melody and Jacob's music, please visit www.melodywalkermusic.com/.
San Francisco Bay Area-based duo Melody Walker & Jacob Groopman have crammed a lot of milestones into the two + years they have been playing together. Following the release of Melody's critically acclaimed debut album Gold Rush Goddess, Melody and Jacob have toured all over the US as a duo and in the up-and-coming progressive bluegrass band Front Country. This April, Melody won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest for her secular humanist gospel song "Black Grace". Front Country took home the gold in both the RockyGrass and Telluride band competitions. When they approached Laurie about producing their duo album, she happily took on the project. Working with two people so devoted to honing their chops together was a joy.
Bluegrass Today ~ David Morris
As a music critic, I'm used to folks occasionally wondering if I've been living under a rock. Now I find myself thinking the same thing. How else could I not have heard about Melody Walker, Jacob Groopman and their progressive bluegrass band Front Country?
Sure, they're from California and they don't tour regularly in the Bluegrass Belt.
But Front Country won band of the year at Telluride this year and at Rocky Grass last year, and Walker won the Gospel award in the Chris Austin songwriting contest this year at MerleFest. Plus, Walker and Groopman deliver some of the best contemporary duet singing that I've come across, so they should have popped up on my radar screen a lot sooner. Maybe that rock I live under is blocking reception.
In any case, my oversight was rectified when Walker dropped by the Bluegrass Today studio at IBMA's World of Bluegrass to talk about the band's plans for a 2014 CD and to deliver a copy of We Made It Home, a collection of duets she and Groopman released this month.
I love duets in general, but I have a real soft spot for minimalist presentations that dial back the instruments and let the voices and the stories shine. And that's exactly what Walker and Groopman do here. Most of the record features just guitar and mandolin, occasionally with resonator guitar or banjo. And on one song, Yellow-Haired Girl, the only accompaniment for the voices is percussion (shaker, drum and, most notably, body percussion by Linda Tillery).
But where the instrumentation is spare, the lyrics are lush and filled with metaphors, and the subjects are, for the most part, surprisingly fresh. You don't often come across songs about a retired circus chimpanzee who was also a boxing champion (Billy the Champ), a star on the verge of exploding (Betelgeuse), or a song about a "symbiotic relationship" that actually uses those words (Come on Mule). There's even a "secular gospel" song that proclaims, "Heaven is right here if you're doing it right" (Black Grace). Then there's the previously mentioned Yellow-Haired Girl, billed as "a meditation on the simultaneous worship and exploitation of pretty women around the world."
Those looking for something familiar will find some touchstones, including Paul Simon's Graceland and Peter Rowan's Mississippi Moon, which the more adventurous among you may remember from a Jerry Garcia solo project many moons ago. There's also the traditional bluegrass song, Sweet Sunny South, but it's presented here in a decidedly untraditional manner - in a modal minor that showcases Groopman's somber, expressive vocal.
And, never fear, there's one song that doesn't require you to think at all and focuses on one of the mandatory elements of bluegrass - a train! Little Blue Caboose, a Walker-Groopman co-write, will have you tapping your feet and singing along with the chorus in no time. You might even start to hear this one popping up now and again at bluegrass jams in your neck of the woods.
This Laurie Lewis-produced collection is a terrific introduction to Walker and Groopman and provide hints of what to expect from Front Country's full-band project next year. But We Made It Home is perfectly capable of standing on its own as music with a folky feel and bluegrass accents.
Twangville.com ~ Shawn Underwood
"Heaven is right here, if you're doing it right." Those words lead the chorus of Black Grace, a song that won Melody Walker the songwriting contest last year at Merlefest. She and partner Jacob Groopman have just released We Made It Home that includes Black Grace and number of other treasures. Produced by bluegrass virtuoso Laurie Lewis, the record is proof that the whole can be even greater than the sum of the parts.
Vocals are provided by both Walker and Groopman, but Melody's range and power set her above most of what you hear in Americana today. On the title track, she drives an old-timey sound complete with a couple of yelps that add a little live texture to the studio recording. The aforementioned Black Grace has her affecting a gospel delivery, or at least a spiritual one. Betelgeuse and Billy the Champ show off a little more of a pop folk sound.
Meanwhile Jacob, who can shred just about anything with strings, focuses his effort here on guitar and mandolin. We Made It Home shows off a sweet mandolin part. It's immediately followed by Retinue, with a brilliant turn on the acoustic guitar. The surprise on the album, though, is how dependent the Paul Simon hit Graceland is on guitar. I remember the song from my younger days for the lyrics, but here it's obvious the instrumental portion was just as critical.
Finally there's the part that Lewis played to tease out the pieces that push the record to its heights. Come On Mule, a song by Groopman's grandfather's cousin, was one I initially pegged as traditional. It's just so lifelike, it has to be an example of how a traditional song starts its trajectory. Sweet Sunny South takes Jacob's experience leaving his home in Virginia and turns it into a mourning ballad of a comfortable life left for the hope and prayer that you're doing the right thing. The disc ends with Mississippi Moon, a Peter Rowan number. Lewis has managed to capture the wonderful presence the duo can add to just about any song, but somehow maintain the essence of Rowan and his early collaborations with Jerry Garcia. It's an exclamation point to finish a very good album.
Beat Surrender ~ Simon
Melody Walker has made several appearances on Beat Surrender over the last few years starting with her EP III then her successful Indiegogocampaign that resulted in the release of her debut album Gold Rush Goddess last year, now she's back again this time officially sharing the limelight with partner in life and music Jacob Groopman on their debut release as a duo We Made It home, the pair also play together in the Bay Area based progressive bluegrass band Front Country winners of the Band Contest at both the Telluride and RockyGrass festivals this year.
One of the albums highlight's is the track Black Grace a secular humanist gospel song which recently earned Melody Walker the prestigious MerleFest songwriting award so all-in-all they are on a roll at the moment and the album was produced by another winner, the bluegrass artist Laurie Lewis who collected a Grammy for True Life Blues:The Songs of Bill Monroe in 1997, the album features a dozen tracks combining Melody's original material, collaborations with Jacob, a pair of covers - Peter Rowan's wonderful Mississippi Moon and the Paul Simon classicGraceland and an arrangement of the traditional American folk song Bright Sunny South.
The something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue (grass) creation comes together in a heaven made match of Americana music.
FATEA Records, UK ~ David Kidman
Bluegrass singer Melody Walker seems to have come from nowhere, emerging from the ranks of progressive bluegrass band Front Country to win the MerleFest songwriting contest in 2012, roughly at the same time as releasing an acclaimed album Gold Rush Goddess. Getting increasingly closer to her band-mate Jacob Groopman over the past two to three years has led to their building a life together and now releasing a whole album as a duo. Theirs comes across at once as a completely natural, easygoing musical partnership, for all that they arrived there from diverse individual musical backgrounds (Melody was co-founder of women's world fusion acappella outfit AkaBella, while Jacob was into jazz and jugband before being taken on board by the SF Bay Area roots scene); and both are accomplished instrumentalists (both play guitar and banjo, while Jacob adds mandolin).
The majority of the material on their debut joint CD is penned by Melody herself, embodying a thoughtful take on life-philosophy that - unusually for bluegrass - draws on astronomy, feminism, folklore and family history. Check out album standout Black Grace for a sample taste of the power of the lyric invention on display here; this secular humanist gospel song combines scientific and religious concepts of heaven and almost incidentally sports a stunning mandolin solo from Jacob. Other highlights include the preceding track Betelgeuse (more astronomical imagery), the brooding O Heartbreaker (featuring Mike Witcher guesting on resophonic guitar) and the joyful opening title number. The simple percussion-backed chant Yellow-Haired Girl is one of two tracks to benefit from harmony vocals from guest Laurie Lewis, who's also produced the whole album. Alongside the disc's original compositions, Jacob takes the lead on a passionate rendition of the traditional Sweet Sunny South (from the repertoire of Charlie Poole), while the album's select quotient of covers comprises a pleasing, if maybe slightly cautious take on Come On Mule (from the pen of Little Mountain Boys' T.W. Massie), a brilliantly paced delivery of the lonesome Peter Rowan classic Mississippi Moon and a jubilant romp through Paul Simon's Graceland.
All told, this is sheer class: an abnormally fine contemporary bluegrass album that won't ever frighten the horses but contains much to stimulate the senses; once it's "made it home" to your CD player I suspect it will be loth to leave the deck.
No Depression ~ Kim Ruehl
Now for something completely different. This one landed on my desk from Hearth Music PR, and it sounds real nice. Very simple, basic, duo stuff (guitar, mandolin, duo harmonies). It's heavy on the harmonies and dynamics. Walker's voice is smooth and pliant. Her songs are a little predictable in the sense that they sound like something you may have already heard. Some people count that as an asset, others see it as a drawback. I'll let you decide. Regardless, they throw in a Paul Simon cover ("Graceland"), a Peter Rowan tune ("Mississippi Moon"), and a darn good song about a couple of mules ("Come on Mule"). There's some wonderful chemistry between these two and the instrumentation is decidedly skillful... These two are far better suited for their own originals, as Simon's masterpiece gives way to "Sweet Sunny Sounth" and a fabulous a capella "Yellow Haired Girl".
Folkwords.com ~ Tom Franks
From the moment I started listening to 'We Made It Home' from Melody Walker & Jacob Groopman, I knew I was heading into a rewarding experience. Some albums that just reach you and this is one of We Made It Homethem. The voices instantly engage with distinctive timbres and an amalgam of rich, warm harmonies. The narratives are supremely seductive and you're involved with the stories the songs portray. And the musical web they weave is engaging and gifted.
So with that sounding pretty positive what do we have? There's a set of well-written songs from Melody, a pair of double-headers with Jacob, a Paul Simon cover and a traditional - and across the board they are as unflawed as they are eclectic. I try to avoid track-by-track reviews, but many of the songs on 'We Made It Home' are sublime with a depth that demands description.
The title track 'We Made It Home' erupts with an ebullient vocal rush, filled with emotive energy; the gentle slide into the luscious duet 'Retinue' is an absolute treat, while 'Betelgeuse' is a supremely spiritual song intimating the expected supernova of Orion's red star. And then comes 'Black Grace', with its gospel-category songwriting pedigree - a fiercely reflective song that breaks boundaries to present a humble human view of what we do and where we are - here or elsewhere. There's the jovial, bluegrass-inspired family truths of 'Come On Mule', and by contrast the lilting melody and sombre lyrics defining the life story of boxing chimpanzee, 'Billy the Champ' - just listen to 'time to go back to Africa' and hear a single phrase move you.
The tenderness between these two musicians is palpable, the understanding that blends their voices and the conviction that runs through their music makes each song an experience to savour. From their splendidly picked cover of 'Gracelands' to the mandolin-inspired rich-vein vocal of 'Sweet Sunny South' it's there for all to hear. And no, I didn't cover every song.
Blabber 'n' Smoke ~ Paul Kerr
We Made It Home is the debut album as a duo from this pair of San Francisco based acoustic musicians and it's a bit of departure from their bluegrass group Front Country. Stripped back to the basics with two voices and a handful of instruments (guitar, banjo and mandolin) they forsake dizzying string breakouts and concentrate on their songs which are delivered with the minimum of fuss. Both Walker and Groopman have fine voices and when they sing together the effect is sublime while their finger picking is exemplary. The temptation is to compare them to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings but Walker and Groopman have a jauntier bounce at times although on the more sombre songs they do approach Welch's gravitas and earnestness.
Populated for the most part with Walker originals (with two co writes with Groopman) there are covers of Paul Simon's Graceland (which allows Groopman to display his guitar skills) and of Peter Rowan's Mississippi Moon (learned from a Jerry Garcia album) delivered with a "so laid back it's horizontal" style with wonderful harmonies and very fine mandolin. Walker's song's subjects range from the traditional sounding title song which opens the album in fine style to musings on astronomy on the rippling Betelgeuse. While the story of an ex circus chimp (Billy the Chimp) and the train song Little Blue Caboose are at the very least toe tapping the duo excel on those strained and tortured songs which are scattered throughout the album. Aside from the Rowan cover they take the traditional Sweet Sunny South and capture that high lonesome sound that can send a chill down the spine.Retinue is a folkier contribution which almost sounds like John Prine as Walker and Groopman sing a sad love song. The stars collide on the standout song here, Black Grace. A halting and haunting hymn to a heaven on earth it earned Walker a first prize in this year's Merlefest. It's a wonderful piece with strong vocals from Walker as she ponders the mysteries of the firmament while guitar and mandolin weave an intricate and delicate backdrop.