On and Off the Record
Releases by Paul Starling, Donna Lynn Caskey and the Ventucky String Band
By Michel Miller 06/12/2014
Suit of Armor
Paul Starling has the kind of sound that, if speakers were installed on every beach along the Pacific Coast Highway, would be heard as it floated out and across the sand to join in on the surfing, the sand castle building and the sunbathing. The dreamy, lyrically forward profile of Starling’s latest album, Suit of Armor, makes for a lively addition to the musician’s catalog. Starling’s self-described “nautical pop” is less Beach Boys and more The Decemberists meet Death Cab for Cutie, in a toned-down, more playful kind of way. “Natalie Wood Reciting Lines,” however, calls back to the Brian Wilson-esque sensibility of a surfer’s anthem and could have been a hit in the ’60s as well as today. As the album progresses, Starling drops the giddiness and settles into himself with a few melancholy anthems that showcase his would-be-a-hit-on-the-indie-circuit voice. “Graveyard Nights” is as much country-inspired as it is an ode to the luau, though hearing it as the soundtrack to a night at the drive-in theater would be fitting as well. The title track, “Suit of Armor,” places you on the deck of a cruise ship, lost with your thoughts, and though the deck is bright with a festive array of hanging lights, the ocean is dark and foreboding. There’s depth in Suit of Armor that begs for close attention, but you would be forgiven if you opted for a siesta, straw hat over your face as Starling serenaded you into happy slumber.
— Chris O’Neal.
Available at paulstarling.bandcamp.com.
Donna Lynn Caskey
t’s a good time to be a banjo. You’re back on Top 40 radio due to the success of bands like Mumford & Sons. Steve Martin has strapped you back on and it’s not in the name of comedy. And God knows you saw your fair share of stage time at Coachella when virtually every hipster band on the bill whipped you out for at least one song. Enter Donna Lynn Caskey, a solo artist who unabashedly rocks the banjo front and center on her debut release, Nameless Heart. The local artist’s first full-length effort, which was recorded in Austin, is almost like time-traveling back to an early ’60s hootenanny when college kids were putting their own spin on folk music, armed with Pete Seeger’s popular banjo books. While there are references to lonesome travelers and panning for gold, it’s not all throwback folk lyrics as the songwriting overall is reflective and open. There are still banjo genre staples such as the spiritual “Time of Delight” and even a little backwoods Appalachia groove on “The Good News,” but ironically two of the standout tracks on the record don’t actually have a banjo on them. The a cappella ballad “They Go On” is a haunting song about being in a relationship with someone who serves in the military. “I’m Not Going Anywhere,” also sans banjo, features only an acoustic guitar and piano, but it’s a truly heartfelt love song. Nameless Heart is a simple record with sparse instrumentation and arrangements but that’s part of its appeal. If you’re looking for lightning-fast bluegrass finger-picking banjo, this probably isn’t your cup of tea, but if you like your singer-songwriters with a touch of the pluck, well Donna Lynn Caskey is your cup of Joe . . . banjo that is.
— Chris Jay.
Available at www.donnalynncaskey.com and on iTunes and CD Baby. .
Ventucky String Band
I’m a bluegrass noob. I generally associate it with public television and farmers markets — Saturday music for gentle people who enjoy farm-fresh produce and baskets. Throw in some Dixieland jazz and Western swing as the Ventucky String Band has on this, its third record, and I get in the mood to wear leather ’n’ lace and hit up the flea market. Despite my ignorance, the ability to recognize expertise in a genre so dependent on skill is no great feat — and the Ventucky String Band is nothing if not expert. On the wonderfully diverse Happenstance, half of which was tracked live in guitarist Matt Sayles’ garage, the quartet casually conveys its mastery of traditional bluegrass instruments such as the fiddle and the banjo in a way that can only be described as “shredding.” Toe-tapping clever ditties like the swingin’ “Reaper Don’t Care” and the darker “Hell Needs Preachers Too” are juxtaposed by the absolutely sublime instrumental “High Desert Sonata” and “So Much Love in This World,” which could easily cross over into mainstream country radio. My personal favorite is the jazzed-up “Ventuck You,” a laugh-out-loud anti-ode to California girls that features Whiskey Chimp’s Bill Flores playing horns and tenor banjo. “I’ve seen enough of these girls with big shades on, thinking somebody cares about their goings-on. Struttin’ around like their shit don’t stink, famous in their minds but too busy to think.” Good stuff.
— Michel Miller.Ventucky String Band will celebrate the release of Happenstance at Green Art People on Wednesday, June 18. The band will also perform at Salzer’s Records on Saturday, June 21, before embarking on a Midwest tour. Visit www.ventuckystringband.com.