Giving some old songs a new, genuine, bluegrass identity.
Whatever the occupation, but particularly anything creative, a period of reflection and taking stock can be very beneficial. Whether that bright light of innovation has dimmed or just through pure exhaustion, the only thing to do is stop, rest or just do something completely different. Five years on since they formed, three albums and relentless touring Mamma’s Marmalade, the ‘newgrass’ quartet from New England, decided they needed a break. But instead of putting their feet up they have put together an EP of covers. At first glance this appears a completely random set of songs from some huge names in musical history, but each one has exerted its own influence on the band. In return Mamma’s Marmalade apply to each their distinctive blend of Appalachian bluegrass.
At the University of Massachusetts in Amherst a love of bluegrass brought together vocalist and fiddle player Lily Sexton and mandolinist Mitch Bordage. Sharing their love of bluegrass, fellow student Sean Davies soon joined on guitar. Completing the four was bassist Dan Bisson. Together as Mamma’s Marmalade their string dexterity became characterised by a willingness to explore and improvise. They harmonise beautifully as they blend strands of old-time with up to the minute ‘newgrass’. But after the heavy touring schedule following last year’s ‘Rabbit Analog’ success came at a price. Time to stop, Bisson left but rather than sit around the others called up some friends, chose some of their favourite songs and put themselves into the shoes of the original artists.
From ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ Elton John’s ‘This Song Has No Title’ is the first to get the Mamma’s Marmalade bluegrass treatment. Gabe Hirshfeld’s fast picking banjo replaces the original’s cascading piano as Sexton applies her softer take to the vocals. ‘Fakin’ It’ by Simon and Garfunkel from ‘Bookends’ may seem a little closer to Mamma’s Marmalade’s natural home, guests Jacob Jolliff (mandolin), Ross Martin (guitar) and Myles Sloniker (bass) add further stringed layers. They continually shift tempo turning a pop song almost into a newgrass jam. Certainly in the vocals, this version perfectly recreates the psychedelic of the original. Twisted Pine join to give a very organic, natural sound to ‘Just The Two of Us’ by Bill Withers partnered by Grover Washington. All high quality covers, ‘Highway Patrolman’ is the standout. Although revved up to a faster speed Sexton along with Grain Thief nevertheless convey the bleakness of Springsteen’s story. For the final track Mamma’s Marmalade delve into the Becker and Fagan songbook for ‘Dirty Work’. In their bluegrass they recreate Steely Dan’s silky jazz very well.
Covers can be little more than padding but equally they represent a challenge, a kind of musical workout. ‘Fakin’ It: Covers Deserving Coverage’ is firmly in the latter category. We must hope its recuperative effects lead to another album of original material before too long.