Elevate Difference

Acoustic Project

When I moved to Virginia over four years ago, I didn’t know what folk music was. Growing up in Portland Oregon, I was raised on the quickly growing West Coast indie rock scene. But sometime in my teenage years I started finding artists like Sparklehorse, Nickel Creek, Laura Gibson, and Blitzen Trapper and I couldn’t get enough. I didn’t know then what it was about these different artists’ sounds that made my mouth water, but there was something they had in common, something earthy, something gritty, that I absolutely loved.

And when I arrived in Virginia, it finally dawned on me. It was folk. It was bluegrass. It was Americana; that’s what I liked so well. I found myself in the pocket of “real” American country music, the influence of which I had been drooling over for years. This is where that sound was bottled. I was at the source of what had morphed into the post-folk-indie-rock that I had been listening to on the other side of the country.

Laura Cortese, too, is a migrant from West to East Coast, having grown up in The Bay Area and then moving East to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston. Based in New England since, she has reached acclaim both at home and abroad, touring the U.S. as well as overseas in the countries where all that fiddling began—Ireland, UK, and Denmark. Her newest effort is called Acoustic Project: a collaboration with Natalie Haas on cello, Brittany Haas with five string and fiddle, Hanneke Cassel on fiddle, and Laura playing fiddle and singing. Singing quite well, I might add. She is well suited to her genre, and melds sugary pop songs and traditional fiddling that makes for a happily surprising combination.

The first track, “Overcome”, is deeply felt and lovely, with the instrumental line and the vocals moving between complimenting and contradicting each other. It is as if Laura has split her vocal chords and is harmonizing with herself: the instrumental and her vocals are equally strong in delivering her voice. “Perfect Tuesdays” is much less interesting, with lyrics that lie flat and fail to surprise. The middle two tracks, however, “5 Tune” and “Du Petit Sarny” are absolutely perfect.

Without a vocal line at all, the listener can dive into the instrumental energy that these women have together, reveling in their momentum and the tension between the lines. “Women of the Ages” is a welcome respite after two such energetic tracks. Harp-like finger picking and the simplicity of structure allow the listener to relax once more into the album. The poem that Laura sings is by John Beaton from 2005, with the refrain “We’re the women of the ages wooed to walk to the aisles of grief; we’re the wear on well-worn pages where posterity retraces deeds of men in bold relief.” A profound image, rightly sung simply and clearly to let the poem be heard. “Wade On In” is probably the best showing of Laura’s voice.

There is a beautiful depth and ease that she demonstrates here, and again it is in delicious tension with the instrumental line. I wish she would embrace her lower vocal range more often—it is rich and mellow. Finally, “Greasy Coat” finishes the album. A fun track, but a little out of control, and it lacks the subtlety of the other songs.

The album is overall an enjoyable listen, a perfect accompaniment to a rainy day or a drive in the country. The lyrics, for the most part, invoke a pleasant introspection and calm energy. Some tracks are more successful than others; the music succeeds when the different instruments and Laura’s voice all play well against each other. It is the friction between the lines, like the friction of a bow grinding the violin, which makes this music exciting. On this album, sometimes that friction exists and sometimes it doesn’t.

Written by: Beth Fagan, December 2nd 2010