It's public knowledge that I harbor no love for Mumford & Sons and most of the other so-called "newgrass" bands. In fact, just the sight — or the sound — of a banjo and a single kick drum is enough to make me want to rip their fake beards from their smiley faces and snap their suspenders into their sunken little chests.
Seriously, I hate it that much.
So when the Louisiana-based female folk duo Silo sent me a Bandcamp link for review in advance of an upcoming show — Friday, July 18, at Burro Bar — and the first thing I heard was a freaking banjo, I smashed my laptop to bits. (OK, not really, but it was a close one.)
After a brief cooling-off period, I thought I'd give it a chance, and let the album Tall Tales roll out a bit before completely ripping it to pieces. And I am happy I did, as there's more at work here than just hokey revivalist bullshit. Multi-instrumentalists Renee Arozqueta and Jennifer Jeffers play accordion, acoustic guitar, glockenspiel and, yes, banjo. So if you're into all that "We play nontraditional instruments" stuff, you'll like Silo. But what really sets them apart are their harmonies, a fantastic combination of silky and jagged, if such a chimera can exist.
The opener, "Mae," is a decent song, with its cavalier delivery its biggest asset, but it's far from the best track on the record. That distinction is split between the lovely "Shades" and the chop-chop sing-along "Blackbirds." "Shades" hints at being just another lonely, by-the-book folk ballad, but quickly melts into a beautiful cascade of full-voice and falsetto harmonies. This tune is truly gorgeous, a thoughtful blend of unison and counterpoint, a heady mix of melancholy and joy.
It's followed directly by the hand-clap/foot-stomp jive of "Blackbirds." Imagine Fiona Apple's "Hot Knife" stripped bare and you've got "Blackbird." It's too short, but in a minute-and-a-half, it captures an energy absent elsewhere on the record.
Other high points on Tall Tales include "Morning Light," a breezy celebration of the coming day, and "Places," which wouldn't be out of place on an indie film soundtrack. The album's only missteps come near the end, when Arozqueta and Jeffers spring the Mumford trap. The penultimate "Old Timey Western" is a minor offender, because the subject matter is jarring and unique, but the closing tune, "Shady Grove," is a formulaic and predictable hoedown, with banjos and fiddles doing what banjos and fiddles do far too often.
One can't hold it against these two songbirds, as they tread well-worn territory and still manage to come up with a handful of original ditties that buck tradition enough to remain interesting. Fans of The Nields and Jonatha Brooke will adore Silo. As will enjoyers of Indigo Girls, though Silo's vocals are a bit more polished than their rough-hewn folk sisters.
Turns out I like this duo in spite of myself.