(Last Kind Word Records, CD)
The last we heard of Montpelier’s Katie Trautz, she was lending her voice and fiddle to the remarkable sophomore effort from Wooden Dinosaur, Spaces. That record, released earlier this year, represented a stylistic shift for Dinosaur toward early country and honky-tonk, filtered through a prism of art rock and indie folk. At the tail end of that recording — and while hunkering down in a Brattleboro studio as Tropical Storm Irene howled outside — Trautz recorded an EP with her own band, the Tall Boys. That self-titled debut, while not an extension of Spaces, shares certain familial traits — and a few band members. Katie Trautz & the Tall Boys is subtly rendered early honky-tonk, with shades of pop and chamber folk. Short and sweet, this gem presents Trautz as a unique and compelling voice among Vermont songwriters.
And how about that voice? Local folk fans are likely familiar with Trautz from her work in the acoustic duo Mayfly. And she has a few lovely lead-vocal turns on both Wooden Dinosaur records. In the spotlight by herself, Trautz reveals nuance and depth. She’s not a flashy singer. She approaches singing the way she does the fiddle: with a subdued directness, creating a sound that’s beautiful in its simplicity. Her clear, light tones on album opener “Gold Watch and Chain” seem as much a part of the sonic tapestry as Asa Brosius’ swooning pedal steel or Nate Gusakov’s loping banjo.
That’s not to say Trautz lacks guile or the ability to command attention. On the ballad “Caught,” she deepens the song’s melancholy with vocal cracks as she switches, almost yodels, between her chest and head voices. The effect lends her words a heaviness, accenting the vulnerability implicit in her tender, girlish croon.
Wooden Dinosaur bandmate Michael Roberts provides ballast on backing vocals and adds nifty electric-guitar flourishes throughout. The symmetry between Trautz and Roberts, so prominent on the Dinosaur records, is equally paramount here. It’s fleshed out by Gusakov’s sturdy baritone, especially on the reworked traditional “In the Pines” — most often associated with Lead Belly or Bill Monroe and, later, Nirvana. The trio puts a cool touch on an already chilling tune.
Katie Trautz & the Tall Boys closes on “We Don’t Ask,” which, with its central finger-picked fiddle melody, evokes Andrew Bird. That is until it blooms into harmony-driven folk rock at the chorus, then gently resolves into dovetailing “oohs” over Noah Hahn’s lithely bowed bass. It’s a fitting close to a delicately charming and subtly impressive record.
Katie Trautz & the Tall Boys play Radio Bean in Burlington this Friday, March 30.