Northern Vermont's Sugarblue call themselves an "Appalachian folk-fusion ensemble," and it's as good a descriptor as any. The band's sophomore release, Low Stars & Deep Snow, is an enjoyable union of time-honored technique and forward-looking songcraft.
Sugarblue's music is rooted in acoustic music tradition but features modern rhythmic flourishes. Drummer Ezra Lipp (who recently moved to San Francisco) brings a pan-global feel to the proceedings. His style is almost funky, with African accents and a spry touch. In-demand percussionist Geza Carr - who doesn't appear on this recording - is currently performing live with the group.
In addition to the lively backbeat, Sugarblue feature strong vocals. Dual female harmonies come courtesy of founders Katie Trautz - who also plays fiddle and banjola - and mandolinist/guitarist/balalaika player Julia Wayne. Contributing the occasional lead vocal is banjo man V.J. Guarino, who sings in a sturdy timbre.
The disc kicks off with "Red Rocking Chair," a high 'n' lonesome number built on a propulsive shuffle. Trautz's fiddle cuts to the quick, and her vocals are met by Wayne's keen counterpoint. The wonderful midsection features a drum break and the two female voices in a fervent call-and-response.
"Something sweet inside my soul, begging me to let it go," they sing on "Winterblue," a jaunty, Celtic-style cut with double-time snare cracks and Jason Pappas' rollicking bass line. It's hardly the most adventurous song on the album, but it could certainly set a grange on fire.
Another standout is "Rain & Snow." The song opens with a minor-key banjo meditation before settling into a mournful, vocal-and-percussion groove. Soon, the banjo re-enters, followed by fiddle. Moments like this show Sugarblue's plentiful arrangement smarts.
Trautz original "World Tour" is packed with polyrhythmic flair. Rimshots crack, as fluid bass accents the tune's bold pulse. Trautz's vocal melody is highly inventive, with unexpected scalar turns.
Wayne's "Reuben" is a jazzy-sounding ballad with a breezily romantic lilt. Substitute the banjo for barroom piano and it could be an outtake from Rickie Lee Jones' self-titled debut.
Guarino offers both the solemn "One Morning" and the more upbeat "Roll Down the Line," both of which complement the album's varied tone.
The album closes with a cover of Louise Taylor's "Call My Name," which features Ghanaian xylophone alongside the more traditional instrumentation. A lovely finish to a lovely album.
It's great to hear a local group taking Americana to another level without sacrificing songwriting or melody. Keep your eyes on this crew; they're definitely onto something.