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This past summer, I was fortunate enough to be Ollabelle's guest at a concert which included (actually, headlined) David Bromberg. I mention this because Bromberg brought a slightly harder edge to Ollabelle, a band which lives on the very edge of folk-y roots music and all that it entails. After leaving the concert, I listened to the band's CDs on the long drive home and was enamored with their abilities to draw from so many influences. In the back of my mind, I heard Bromberg and thought, what a great combination.
I hear echoes of that concert when I listen to Ma Rain's latest album, Glory Runner. They claim to be, at least according to their Facebook page, folk/alt.country/Americana, and in a simplistic sort of way they are. But it didn't take more than one time through to tell they were far more. Their musical tendrils reach for soul here and jazz there and pop here and bluegrass there, depending upon song and, in fact, segments of songs. Trying to nail these guys down, I find, is a study in elusive. Of course, those who listen from the outside might disagree.
Lumping music into simple categories is a necessity in today's world. How do you describe music to the casual music listener? Impossible. Music is another realm.
Well, welcome to the realm of Ma Rain, the first band out of The Netherlands since Gruppo Sportivo to really knock my socks off. So you've never heard of Gruppo Sportivo. Does that mean that they aren't/weren't a massively creative music force? They certainly set me back on my heels. I have a feeling that Ma Rain will end up doing the same, but in a different way. GS was clever, innovative, funny and way beyond competent musically. As instrumentalists, they were astonishing and yet had that core about them--- an ability to weave fragments into whole cloth.
Ma Rain does exactly that as well. Those tendrils I mentioned? You'll miss them if you don't listen closely but they're there. They're reaching at just the right moments and holding back at others. That's what is known as touch, my friends. Ma Rain has the touch.
I heard it from the opening track, Wrecking Yard, a choogling light rocker which blends electric and acoustic to perfection and takes it to another level with the chorus. I was halfway through the song before I realized how beautifully layered was the music, especially the chorus.
Now, here's the thing. If I hadn't known they were from Amsterdam, I would have thought Austin or Nashville or even Los Angeles. Europeans, on the whole, just don't pull off American roots music (or haven't until recently, as far as I'm concerned). Well, you can toss that myth out the window. Sisters is as American sounding as it comes these days as are the rest of the songs on the album. If I have to choose favorites (something readers who want tips seem to require more and more), I would have to say the smooth folk/jazz (with vibraphone which makes me drool) Rescue Pollyanna fits the bill nicely. Very jazzy in a John Martyn kind of way, but that may be because of the bass, played to perfection on this song and throughout the album by one Peter Wassenaar. If you want country, Chariot leans that way, a hauntingly beautiful song about love lost which sends chills up my spine with a superb chorus and background voices which blend like good coffee beans. Speaking of coffee, The Vert Donjon had me thinking of what it would be like waking up in the morning and sharing a cup with someone special, this song playing low in the background. It's funny, the things that pop into our minds at the oddest moments, eh?
Glory Runner (the track) stands out, too. Perhaps it's the shuffling gait with light banjo in the background and the almost Chet Atkins guitar licks which takes this over the top. Whatever it is, it works.
I'm not new to Ma Rain. I found them a few years ago and heard enough in them that I listened and tried to hear, but the sound evaded me somehow. After hearing this, I feel an urge to revisit the two I heard, 2007's Harbour and 2008's Paper Wall. Albums as good as Glory Runner are never created in a vacuum. I have a feeling I missed something and maybe everything.
As for talent, this band is loaded. Marijn Wijnands has an outstanding voice, perfect for the songs which, not surprisingly were either written or co-written by her. The band? Incredible. From the aforementioned bass of Peter Wassenaar to the mandolin/banjo/accordian/clarinet(?) of Janos Koolen to the first-rate guitar of Marcel de Groot to the solid percussion (and marimba/vibraphone/organ) of Richard Heyerman to the guitar and production skills of Wouter Planteijdt.
Tom Mank brought the CD I am playing now back from The Netherlands where he toured with wife and music partner Sera Smolen. He said the musicians in Ma Rain were the best The Netherlands had to offer. I believe him. This album is proof.
As for Ollabelle? I can't think of a better one-two punch on the concert circuit than Ollabelle and Ma Rain. If I was a booking agent, I'd be trying to put tours together in The Netherlands and the States, each band headlining in its own country. What can I say? I'm a dreamer.