Perhaps the best thing any folk rock act can hope to do is to make a decent folk rock record. It may sound simple enough but trust me I’ve heard plenty of stinkers in my day. These days it seems that many people see folk music as a budding genre which they can manipulate into their own folk-addled Frankenstein.
Folk is not a base from which subgenres are sprouting off from the likes of a genre like EDM. Hyphenated genres such as folk-rock or folk-pop are essentially either rock or pop with folk influences.
It was nice to hear a band like Madison, Wisconsin’s five-piece folk outfit The Gambol play it both straight with some of their songs deeply rooted in the folk tradition and with others that branch out into a more country and western rock feel.
The ensemble cast consists of Jack Ringhand on guitar and vocals, Anna Grassman on violin, Tony LaBrasca on guitar, banjo and harmonica, bassist and vocalist Neal Cragg and drummer Ben Dederich. The group released their debut EP Don’t Wake the Painting in March of last year and then hit the road touring around the upper Midwest. It is a year later and the band is back with their terrific eponymous full-length which they recorded in Nashville with Ken Coomer whose work in the past has included alt country auteurs like Uncle Tupelo and Wilco.
What one first notices upon listening to The Gambol is how extremely tight the band sounds on each of these eight songs. It is really something that only touring and live jamming can in a sense cultivate within a band. The bluesy opener “The Abyss” is dripping with hooks from the guitar to the harmonica. Singer Jack Ringhand wastes no time showing off his guttural and bassy vocal chops.
Next the band changes course for the straightforward upbeat folk fugue “Where Lies My Fate” which pits Grassman’s violin against LaBrasca’s banjo in a heated raced to the finish. Later we find the band playing radio friendly pop on the hard to beat “More than a Man.” They prove they can play radio friendly folk too and they do so beautifully on “Tennessee” a balladic ode to the state in which they recorded their album, and quite frankly the crowning jewel on The Gambol.
The Gambol is at the top of their game on this record when they stick to making more radio friendly or be it dive bar or coffee house friendly type of folk. Sure it’s a formula that gets rather boring after a while but it’s also a good stepping stone to get yourself noticed and then start to experiment after you’ve got someone else paying for you to make your records.
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