Unique voices come together to create a special album of varied songs and sounds.
Sometimes an album comes out of nowhere that grabs you and says “listen.” Julia Zech (Banjo and Piano) and Pierce Black (Double Bass) form the core of the group with a cast of fourteen other players revolving around them. They say that the music starts by “repackaging their shared passion for Bluegrass.” Only ‘Would You?’ and ‘Sanity’ make you think “Bluegrass” straightaway, however.
Some of the other, less recognisably Bluegrass based, songs are built around the sound of specific instruments, many of them not typically used in our part of the musical forest. The Flugelhorn solo in the delicate ‘Homeward Bound,’ gives the song a very European Jazz feel. ‘Old Solo’ features something called a Nyckelharpa, which looks like the offspring of a Violin and a Hurdy Gurdy and lends an atmospheric backdrop to the voices. The voices are the standout part of ‘Unseen Course.’ Zech takes many of the leads with her distinctive voice that is as close to Liz Fraser or Hope Sandoval as it is to Country. It was no surprise to find that Cerys Mathews was a fan of Zech’s previous Bluegrass trio Fierce Flowers. The closest comparison to Black’s voice is Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance, and where he takes the lead, as on the slow Blues ‘Dear Ol’ Friend’ he has a relaxed intimate quality to his singing. Together their voices have a unique blend with the delicacy of Zech supported by Black’s more robust singing. It seems to be compulsory to have a Gypsy Jazz tune on your album this year, but Black’s singing on ‘Give Me Back My Mojo’ along with the Hawaiian guitar make their entry in this category one of the better ones.
With a variety of styles there is always a danger of an album sounding a bit patchy. The vocals are what ties ‘Unseen Course’ together. Highlights are the poppy ‘Tunes With You,’ and the previously noted ‘Sanity’ and ‘Old Solo.’ The words often take unexpected paths. ‘Would You?’ could have been a typical traveling to my girl type song, but talk of Submarines, and standing in a crowded train makes it different and special.
The press for Stereo Naked seems to almost be apologetic that they aren’t American. With Americana such a broad definition It just doesn’t matter. They have a uniquely European feel, the band are based in Cologne, so that trying to force comparisons to Laurel Canyon and Bluegrass don’t make a lot of sense. Stereo Naked take all their influences, American, British, French, and create their own sound and their own music. Yes, it is Americana because that’s their starting point, but that’s only a label of convenience. I think we can agree with their press release and say that this album will “establish them as a new favourite band.”