The idea of a CD composed of nothing but two mandolins playing against each other is a great one, and The Grapes of Rag starts things off with snap and swing, lots of jazzy and bluegrass riffs and pickin' dominating the cut, but it has to be said that a bit of the rest of the release fails to completely meet with that introductory standard even though a significant portion does indeed. Thus, Michael Connolly and Miller McNay's The Mandolin Casefiles most definitely is and isn't quite what you may think it is.
On the other hand, what you hear is precisely what went on in the studio, no overdubs, corrections, or any other form of monkeying-around occurred, and so the CD is very much like hearing the gents in concert. Knowing that, one can almost literally picture the guys trading off intricate intertwining lines in the trad Bill Cheatham. But then in Mr. Pick's Blues, a coalition of lazily clever thematics and improvs begin to manifest only to lose focus in several places, a matter of overreach where closer fidelity to tempo and tone would've kept synchrony and harmony, even obtusely. There's also an atmosphere of range-sameness to the entire release, a milieu I imagine would be extremely difficult to surmount, given a mandolin's dynamics and upper register personality, so a recessing occurs (more than once in Over the Waterfall and again in Blackberry Blossom), making the engineering seem to be a bit sloppy or ill-advised…or perhaps the players were pulling back from the microphones. Hard to tell.
I'm actually baffled in a some of this. While highly enamored of displays of truly out-of-the-box playing that's mindful of the days when John Stowell (plays a guitar, but his notions were quite similar to Connolly & McKay's) and other obscure-then-obscure-now jazz-fusion players were plying their much-missed trade—not to mention an obvious degree of dexterity and invention well above the call of duty—I'm too often reacting as though The Mandolin Casefiles were an echo of those olden New Age hammer dulcimer or zither LPs where an air of monotony develops through an unrelievedly thin register. I suspect that could have been eliminated were a bass to have been supplied to provide bottom end contrast (with mandos, there is NO bottom end), better highlighting what is really going on and occasionally buttressing the pace more clearly (Caravan). Still in all, while there's no denying that these guys are wondrous players, the problem is that this CD demands very close attention to reveal its many charms, and anything less than that tends to turn it into wallpaper.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2011, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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