various artists,
The Angels are Singing:
A Women's Bluegrass Gospel Collection

(Rounder, 2002)

The Angels are Singing: A Women's Bluegrass Gospel Collection is a mostly satisfying and at times inspiring compilation album that responds to the recent bluegrass revival. It features some wonderful performances from fine singers including Alison Krauss, Lynn Morris, Hazel Dickens, Kathy Kallick, the Cox Family and many more.

The 16-song collection has been culled from the Rounder Records vault and compiled by Ken Irwin. A range of musical styles are represented here, from the very traditional (Wilma Lee Cooper, Olabelle Reed) to the contemporary (Alison Krauss, the Wayfaring Strangers). Most of them deal with the subjects of death and dying and old-time religion. While listening, I was struck by the plain-spokenness of some of the lyrics: the treatment of death as a "fact of life" and therefore a perfectly good thing to sing about.

At times, it seems that the songs are not particularly the strongest of the genre (that is, other songs than these became "standards" for good reason). But at other moments, I found myself thrilled at the discovery of an old and true gem, such as Olabelle Reed's a cappella "Six Feet of Earth Make Us All One Size," previously unreleased.

The other highlight of the album for me was the Wayfaring Strangers' haunting version of the well-known traditional song of the same name. Lucy Kaplansky and Jennifer Kimball provide contemporary and spine-tingling harmonies together with Matt Glaser on violin, Tony Trischka on banjo and notably Andy Statman on clarinet. Songs like this one, that live on through generations, link us to the past and future. "Memories That Bless and Burn" by Dry Branch Fire Squad, featuring Suzanne Thomas, is also excellent.

One of the challenges, I'm sure, in putting together The Angels are Singing was to keep the overall sound consistent while providing enough variety to keep listeners interested. Many of the songs in this genre do sound quite similar, as do many of the female voices, and most of the arrangements here are traditional ones emphasizing guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle. Despite the similarity of many of the songs, the disc has a good flow and pacing and never lapses into monotony. I myself would love to hear a few more contemporary updates of very old songs. It will be interesting to see, in the wake of the "O Brother/O Sister" phenomenon, if more artists such as the Wayfaring Strangers find new ways to keep old songs alive.

- Rambles
written by Joy McKay
published 11 January 2003

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