Jeremiah McLane,
Smile When You're Ready
(Epact, 2003)

It's easy to find accordions used as accent instruments, lending atmosphere to various folk recordings. And there are many musical traditions that use the accordion as a strong solo voice. Rarely does accordion lead a band of other instruments, especially with outspoken pianos and guitars to take the lead.

From the opening "Stump Jumper," McLane's accordion dominates Smile When You're Ready. Where it's missing, as in the piano-led opening of "Popogigio," the album slows and founders. The other instruments each have a strong presence; the numerous fiddles and Keith Murphy's guitar especially provide a centering influence for accordion airs that might otherwise fly too wild. Don Baldini's bass in "Stump Jumper" and "Lonely Way" is so perfectly placed as to be unnoticeable -- until it drops out and leaves a lonesome ache in the notes. While Ruthie Dornfield's viola or David Surette's mandolin provide a backbone for "Stump Jumper" or "Flat Foot Henry," it's always McLane's accordion that sets the pace, seeming to catch changes in mood and melody from the air and pass them along to the other musicians.

Smile When You're Ready never tries to force a mood. There are somber wanderings like "Popogigio" and the lost "Lonely Way," and the serene, almost meditative "Waltz of the Floating Bridge." McLane performs the slower pieces with aplomb, but the album truly shines on the more upbeat tunes. The contrast in approaches between moods is sharply defined in "Pat's Funeral/Pam's Birthday," as a sad, thoughtful dirge swings into a party at the change of a button. The group swings into high gear for "Tenessee Mt. Fox Chase/Flat Foot Henry," a wild, bouncing take on the old favorite that ends the album on the same high note that opened it. Some of the slower tunes are almost tragically sweet. "The Cucumber Tree" grows out of Mary Lea's viola and Dornfeld's fiddle, and is one of the few songs on the album not weakened by the absence of accordion. The ending "Grey Harbour" is a polite, gentle farewell from a thoughtful album, and leaves a clear sense of finale in the air. But it's the mischievous swells and playful leaps of "Amy's Tune" and the Parisian strolling jig of "Tour De Taille" I find myself looping every time.

Bright or solemn, Smile When You're Ready isn't just a good album for accordion fans. It's a good album for anyone who enjoys instrumentals, or waltzes, or would like to hear a fiddle's gentler side. That all is held together by McLane's extremely sharp accordion playing is an added bonus that should have you scanning the store shelves.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 27 December 2003

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