(Lucky Micah Records, CD)
St. Paul, Minnesota-based Eliza Blue craft acoustic ballads filled with sorrowful sentiment and minor-key inflections. Their debut release, One Year, features the rich voice of Elizabeth Bonacci, who instills each tune with powerful, if somewhat cheerless, melodies. The band's music is lush and sorrowful; each song wallows in exquisite misery. While the overall sound is lovely, there's little variation from track to track. If you're in the mood to mope, this is not entirely a bad thing.
Bonacci and her husband Paul Miksic form the group's core. In addition to singing, Bonacci handles fiddle and guitar, while Miksic takes turns on banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass. The duo's novelist pal Karen Olson Edwards occasionally collaborates, providing hushed vocal harmonies and light percussion.
Opening track "Brother Cain" sets the record's mournful tone, with Bonacci's aching voice framed by sparse tambourine, fiddle and six-string. The following track, "Turnstile," affects a similar vibe; a fingerpicked guitar figure cycles quietly as Bonacci sings her tale of romantic woe. Strummed acoustics and subdued bass provide the background for "Sally," another dispirited love song. Bonacci's bluesy phrasing lends sultry desperation to the cut, one of the record's mellowest.
The banjo work on "Little Bird" is more Appalachian lullaby than European dirge. But it's hardly bluegrass -- like most of the other tunes, the track favors patient restraint over instrumental muscle flexing.
Fans of Nick Drake will find much to enjoy here; Eliza Blue's downcast temperament has plenty in common with the tragic folkie. Several cuts would sound perfectly natural on a mix tape alongside Drake's most heart-wrenching numbers. A few variations in tempo or instrumentation would go a long way, however. Over the course of the record, it becomes somewhat difficult to tell the songs apart. Still, the band knows a thing or two about maintaining a mood. It's just not a particularly jaunty one.
One Year is a solid effort from a young group that will probably get better with age. They're currently on their first tour; maybe the road will put some extra spring in their steps. Hear them at Radio Bean in Burlington on Friday, June 17.