Outshine the Sun
5 stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
For the Foghorn Stringband, the dream of the nineties is indeed alive in Portland, just as long as you’re dreaming about the eighteen nineties. (I hope no other reviewer has made that connection to the excellent Carrie Brownstein/Fred Armisen sketch comedy Portlandia on IFC, but I’m too lazy to googlebing it.)
Oregon-based eight-stringer Caleb Klauder and fiddler Sammy Lind, now joined by Quebecois bassist Nadine Landry and Washington guitarist Reeb Willms, are as good as you can wrangle if you’re looking for the picking and singing old-time, with Lind knowing when to be a little ragged here and when to be a little fancy there and Klauder’s tenor pained enough to hit nostalgia without bleeding through to melodrama. The ladies are not here for ornamentation, but for strong and supple performance that gives the band the range and talent to handle the ballads, love songs, instrumentals, parlor songs, and white gospel that make up the twenty-one songs clocking in two minutes shy of an hour.
Foghorn could keep the feet tapping the hardwood all night long with Hartfordesque fiddle tunes like “Humpback Mule,” “Indian Ate the Woodchuck,” and “Salty River Reel,” and with “Lover’s First Quarrel,” which somehow manages to be concise and baroque at the same time.
But it’s the singing—whether solo or harmony—that’s made me keep this one spinning. The simple voice blends on “Distant Land to Roam” and “Just a Few Old Memories,” a simple tearjerker led by one of the ladies (I’m sorry to say, from the materials at hand, I’m not sure which) indeed evoke “another place and time,” like the scent of an old upright piano.
The drop-thumb rave-up “Whoa Mule” and two almost-bluegrass hymnal thumpers, “Outshine the Sun” and “Gospel Ship,” have the band running hard and true vocally and instrumentally.
The track that haunts me is the penultimate “Over the Garden Wall,” a sweet and strange romance from the Carter Family oeuvre made sweeter and stranger by this fine quartet.