In a town and state that really know their bluegrass and string-band music, Lauren Rioux has been doing a bit of hiding in plain sight. Though the fiddler has a gaggle of students, and plays all over the country with Darol Anger's Republic of Strings and Scott Nygaard's Crow Molly, she hasn't done a lot of gigging here in her home state.
That changes this week with the release of her first solo album, All the Brighter, at One Longfellow. Classically trained, Rioux brings a convert's passion to traditional fiddle tunes and contemporary string music, reveling in old jaunts and lingering dreamily in pretty ballads, even throwing in covers of Roy Orbison and Cole Porter tunes to mix things up a bit.
The album features big-time performances — not only from Rioux, but also from Crooked Still's Brittany Haas and Anger (both on fiddle), fellow Republic-ans Mike Block on cello and Scott Law on guitar, the suddenly ubiquitous Joe Walsh on mandolin and guitar, and hired-gun flatpicker Lincoln Meyers.
If there's anything to complain about here, actually, it's that Rioux is a victim of the laws of supply and demand. After a summer that has seen a Joe Walsh solo release that featured Rioux, and an Erica Brown solo fiddle release prominently featuring Walsh and Anger, this album is just a little bit less special. (I have a tendency to favor bands over solo efforts with lots of studio friends for this very reason: There is a scarcity that can increase your enjoyment of the work. But that may be a personal peccadillo.)
No matter. As a piece all its own, Brighter has plenty of unique qualities. First is the tone of the five-string fiddle Rioux plays. Right out of the gate with the traditional "Hosses in the Canebreak" (it's cool that for the traditionals Rioux includes the chord progression in the liner notes, to pass on the music), we hear her aggressive, sometimes squawking, playing, which is much grittier and raw, in a good way, than how many classical players approach fiddle-playing.
Plus, on "Canebreak," we hear for the first time a technique that will repeat on the album where Rioux plays in one channel, Haas (also a five-string fiddle) in another. And here Anger actually plays in the middle channel (it works less well in headphones) on baritone violin. The result is a freneticism, music coming at you from all angles.
Not bad for a recording done at Rioux's house. Anger's mixing job is pretty superb.
Rioux and Anger approach his original instrumental "Scarborough" with the same technique, floating over Block's low-end drone with real verticality. Rioux's playing here is spry and playful, but melancholy at the same time, so that you're never quite sure where the melody is going and it plays with your emotions. This tune is notable, too, for an exquisite guitar break from Law. He's incredibly precise, and when the cello follows it's like the mushy, hot apples in the middle of a perfectly crusted pie (sorry, this string-band stuff puts me in mind of country-style metaphors).
"The Beryline Savante," a Rioux original, is similarly interesting for its arrangement and organization, and Rioux, Haas, and Block do wonders with "Tashina's Tune," a haunting and thoughtful piece from Tashina Clarridge of the Be Eaters. It's nice to hear original instrumentals; you don't know exactly where they're going after the first verse.