Salamander Crossing,
Bottleneck Dreams
(Signature Sounds, 1998)

Named for the yellow-spotted salamanders that cross busy roads in mating season via tunnels built by concerned locals in western Massachusetts, Salamander Crossing is Rani Arbo (fiddle, vocals), Jeff Kelliher (guitar, mandolin, vocals) Andrew Kinsey (bass, vocals) and Dave Dick (banjo, mandolin, guitar). In its 1998 release Bottleneck Dreams, the band has a unique and graceful bluegrass-folk sound that demonstrates range and versatility and is mighty pleasant on the ears. (The band refers to it as "amphibious bluegrass" on their Web page -- sure, why not?)

Arbo is the centerpiece of the group, with a smoky-smooth voice that ranges from steely on the opening track "What Kind of Person," a song about a relationship gone sour, to wistfully contemplative in "Indigo Rose" to downright exuberant on the bluegrass gospel tune "Paul and Peter Walked." In the closing track, "Crossing the Bar," Arbo's arrangement of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, her voice soars, sweet and pure, underscored with cello (Arbo) and guitar. The comparison to Loreena McKennitt is irresistible -- it sounds like something McKennitt might have recorded after spending time in Appalachia -- yet the song is in no way derivative. Arbo is no slouch on the fiddle either; her playing is cool and clean and precise but never mechanical.

Arbo's vocals are featured on most of the tracks, but Kinsey sings the lead on "River and the Rain" and Kelliher sings his own composition "Put the Weight on Me." Both do a very good job, but as solo vocalists they seem to lack Arbo's range. They more than make up for this however; the songs are characterized by tight harmonies and deft picking that is never muddy. Guest artists Colin Linden (who doubles as producer), Richard Bell and Tim O'Brien round out the ensemble.

Bottleneck Dreams isn't for everybody; some of the songs veer a bit closer to country than is comfortable for some listeners. But overall, if you're looking for something fresh and original that respects its bluegrass roots, think "amphibious."

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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