April Verch,
Steal the Blue
(Slab Town, 2008)

Somehow, I managed to miss April Verch's Rounder recordings, which brought this young Ontario-born and -bred fiddler (now in her late 20s) attention and acclaim. Or so I learned, anyway, from the reviews I saw. My own listening-informed judgment starts with Steal the Blue, the newest development in her post-Rounder career.

Sensitively produced by Jon Weisberger (music journalist and former band member) and Stephen Mougin, Blue has a striking, crisp sound. The arrangements are lovely. Verch is a superbly able fiddler in the Canadian folk, as opposed to American country and bluegrass, tradition. To my taste, the fiddle tunes, comprising about half of the disc, are the best -- well, the better -- part. In fact, Blue gives one -- well, me -- the impression of being two albums, one for devotees of Celtic- and French-Canadian-flavored fiddle music, the other, where Verch sings (with technical perfection) in an atmospheric little-girl's soprano, for lovers of Alison Krauss's brand of acoustic country and bluegrass-pop.

I really like the fiddle tunes, and I am moved by what Verch does with them, which is to cause the hair on one's -- well, my -- back to rise. As for the songs ... mmm. ... Now, here, let us agree there is room for discussion. We reviewers, who in our self-inflated moments like to think of ourselves as "critics," are here to deliver confident, no-nonsense pronouncements on the worth of a particular musical product. I'm sure you expect no less of us. If we like it, you are to believe, it is objectively good. And if we don't, save your money and time, and yes, we'll accept your thanks. With blushing modesty, of course.

But seriously, folks: The fact of the matter is that while I respect Krauss's considerable talent (I'd have to be an idiot or a bigot not to), my enthusiasm for her bluegrass-pop and pure pop hovers close to zero on my personal appreciation scale. That doesn't mean -- let me hastily insert here -- that therefore I hold it and her unworthy. It just means that the approach is not to my taste and really, I ought to leave it to others, more sympathetic to this sort of thing, to judge for themselves. To my ear, no scientifically neutral instrument, the songs (written mostly by Nashville professionals in the cases of both Krauss and Verch) sound melodically thin and thematically trite; i.e, standard-issue relationship laments and celebrations. When Krauss has excellent material -- of the sort that dusts up her justly praised and hugely popular collaboration with Robert Plant, Raising Sand -- then I take notice, and I get happy.

Verch is one more gifted young woman, raised on bluegrass, folk and country, who's heading down the acoustic-pop route pioneered by Krauss. If you want to travel with her, it's your bus fare. I expect that you'll enjoy the ride and the scenery. As for me, I kind of like Hayes Carll's "Long Way Home," which is kind of pretty, and with a different singer and a different arrangement Larry Cordle and Erin Enderlin's "I Might Have One Too" could be a hard-hitting, hard-country song. Beyond that, it's your call.

review by
Jerome Clark

17 January 2009

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