Doors & Windows
(Compass, 2009)

Originally intended to be a bluegrass band, Bearfoot's young founders changed direction when they couldn't find a banjo player in Alaska. So, while remaining acoustic, banjoless and drumless (at least in live performance; banjo and drums are heard from time to time on Doors & Windows), the group became something else not immediately classifiable, at least in the context it has chosen -- for now -- to operate.

Mostly original songs, the better part of Bearfoot is the Joni Mitchell/singer-songwriter sort of material, melodic, lyrically ambitious and well sung with engagingly ethereal harmonies. The less interesting part, too close to half of the album, suggests directions that may lead the band to Nashville to join the legions of forgettable, mainstream and ephemeral. That deal with the dark powers would necessitate eschewing the acoustic approach, but otherwise the sacrifice, one supposes, would be sustainable for the commercial reward, or anyway its possibility.

In other words, Bearfoot traffics to a distracting degree in the sorts of country-pop love songs that -- inexplicably to me -- keep Music City afloat on an ocean of bland ditties and serious bucks. Also and not incidentally, Bearfoot has The Look: five physically attractive young people -- three women, two men -- who also, let us be clear, possess undeniable vocal and instrumental skills, plus, no doubt, trained stage presences. One wishes that Doors & Windows were more consistently substantive. It doesn't help, either, that the opening cut, "Oh My Love," is fully as generic as its title suggests.

More rooted sounds are hardly absent, and not just in the single traditional number, "Single Girl" (from the Carter Family variant). There are moments of neo-oldtime fiddling, interestingly and unexpectedly applied, for example to the Beatles chestnut "Don't Let Me Down." Overall, though, it is apparent that in common with not a few younger acts, Bearfoot is more deeply versed in the collected works of Alison Krauss than of, say, Hazel Dickens.

Doors is all right, I guess, if you're looking for a serving of smooth and pleasant (with hints here and there of spicy) competently prepared. It is unlikely, however, to satisfy those who think of something more filling when the phrase "string band" picks at the aural appetite. On the other hand, Bearfoot fiddler Odessa Jorgensen's "My One True Love," as unblinking and devastating as a 19th-century death ballad, is a cold beauty of loss and grief. If more of the material were of this raw emotional authenticity, this would be a different review.

review by
Jerome Clark

5 December 2009

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