Mama's Angel Child - The Little Brothers
Written by Bruce Nemerov Mama's Angel Child - The Little Brothers
I've been listening, off and on, to Mama's Angel Child by the Little Brothers for two or three weeks now and each time I find something new something I hadn't heard before in the music. This is a very good thing. Depth and subtlety are qualities all too uncommon today when so many "acoustic" bands hit you over the head with wild-eyed energy but little else. I'll resist naming names, but you know who they are.
But back to Frankie and Kim Basile and the 3rd Brother, mandolinist Mike Hoffmann or is he the second brother, Kim being of the female persuasion? (They really need to straighten this out for the perplexed among us.) Anyway, the three have done a very difficult and pleasing thing with this CD: Using voices (Frankie and Kim) and string instruments (all three), the LBs have recorded a variety of American foundational (I hate the term "roots," don't you?) music in a surprisingly creative manner.
Let me give an example. The first track, "Loose Like That" (one of the numerous offspring of Tampa Red and Georgia Tom's single-entendre hit of a similar name) sounds here like the Skillet-Lickers-play-Dixieland. The mandolin plays the melodic cornet part while Kim's fiddle is the New Orleans clarinet. The Hokum/Jug Band style these Tampa-Georgia tunes usually get, and deserve, would usually be a ho-hum way to start a record. If you're going to include a song like this, you'd best have something fresh in the arrangement. And a good strong singer. The LBs have both.
And speaking of voices, Kim is very affecting singer. In contrast to her husband, she tends to hold back with a world-weariness reminiscent of some Mississippi women. Those falling notes at the end of the lines are subtle and captivating. Listen to her sing "New Bumblebee" blues. And again the LBs, rather than copying a classic, rearrange the tune by using a low-tuned guitar, 12 string I think, and what sounds like a cross-tuned fiddle. Memphis Minnie meets W.M. Stepp. Very effective.
I could go through the CD track-by-track with more examples of this sort of thing, but that would just spoil the discoveries you'll make on your own. Let me just say that the title song, a beautifully melodic waltz as sung by Frankie has a most interesting instrumental arrangement with the fiddle and mandolin giving the song an Eastern European village orchestra flavor; and Kim's readings of "What Fault You Find of Me" and "Wayward Girl" are sublime both accompanied by Frankie's sympathetic instrumental backing on old-time banjo (deep-toned with that loose-head, low-tuned sound) and guitar respectively. The musical interaction of this couple is so agreeable on the wordless refrain of this last song (as it is throughout the whole CD) that one is led to suspect they just might have a good marriage.
I haven't said much about the 3rd Brother (or is it 2nd, etc.). Mike lurks in the background a lot. Though he's not on all the tracks, when present his contribution is a subtle force of texture a tremolo here, a rhythmic punch there, and especially the rollicking orchestral duets with the fiddle. He does get a few solos; the one in the Roll & Tumble child "The Girl I Love Got Long Curly Hair" is particularly nice. He seems content to be the guy who quietly adds the little touches that mean so much. Except when he plays his banjo-mandolin; then he loudly adds those touches.
Though one of the Little Brothers' signatures is rearranging and recomposing traditional material something Mike Seeger did so very well; who can forget Mike singing Roll & Tumble and accompanying himself on fretless gourd-banjo and rack-harmonica? there are several direct musical tributes scattered over the CD's sixteen tracks including "Crow Jane," Bad Luck Blues" and "Mother's Prayer." The last deserves special mention since it is both a tribute and a personal artistic creation. Frankie sings and plays a solo version of A.C. and Mamie Forehand's "Mother's Prayer" that is emotionally profound. Frankie's voice is sweeter and quieter. And the accompaniment (sounds like a fingerpicked mandola to me) echoes the zither-like patent instruments of an earlier time. Washington Phillips would love this. So do I.
One final topic. This CD shows the good side of the DIY democratization of music. It sounds like real people in a real space who can really play their instruments and sing their songs. The recording quality and mix is mostly very good (I could have stood a little more of Kim's voice front-and-center on "What Fault," Frankie) and I suspect there's an overdub or two (second fiddle part now and then? banjo in the background?).
But when songs, franchise-like, can be built one note at a time, it's worth keeping in mind that these folks are for real and being real isn't always easy.
Good work Brothers.
1. Loose Like That
2. New Bumble Bee
3. Crow Jane
4. Mama's Angel Child
5. What Fault You Find of Me
6. Farewell Daddy
7. Cabo Verdranos Peça Nove
8. Bad Luck Blues
9. The Girl I Love Got Long Curly Hair
10. Wayward Girl
11. Leake County Blues
12. Cold Penitentiary Blues
13. Viola Lee Blues
14. Grind So Fine
15. Black Mattie
16. Mother's Prayer