Having your musical horizons constantly expanded continues to be a real joy of NCUK, add to the list of new acts discovered the wonderful trio Red Molly. The fact that our musical paths have never previously crossed is certainly a shortcoming on my part, rather than these three ladies being a new and upcoming act. Red Molly have been performing together for over 10 years, regularly clocking up over 100 shows annually, delighting fans with their mix of Americana and Folk. The band comprises Abbie Gardner (dobro / lap steel), Laurie MacAllister (bass / banjo) and Molly Venter (guitar) with their three voices combining to produce stunning harmonies.
This month saw the release of ‘The Red Album’, their fifth full studio album, and a collection which sees them experimenting slightly to dabble in a more modern sound on a number of its tracks. Amongst the thirteen songs recorded for ‘The Red Album’, their first to be produced in Nashville, are an increased number of original offerings, with Gardner and Ventner penning four tracks each. ‘Clinch River Blues’, one of the outside cuts, dates back to 2008 and is a tantalisingly atmospheric start to the album. The band commented that they ‘hadn’t worked up a really dark song in a while‘, this bluesy track with its’ wonderful electric dobro and chain-gang sounding harmonies fits the bill perfectly. A complete change of mood for ‘I Am Listening’ a touching piano-led ballad. Gentle flowing verses are gorgeously sung by Molly on her own composition which recounts the tentative start of a romantic relationship influenced by a determination to not repeat previous mistakes. Support from the other band members is suitably understated on this tender tune, allowing the lead to rightfully shine.
The first written contribution from Gardner, ‘You Don’t Have The Heart For It’, unsurprisingly sees Abbie take lead vocal duties on a gloriously old-fashioned Country song. Drowned in steel guitar, this relaxed shuffle is a throwback of the very best kind. The frustrated resignation of the failure of a marriage in the lyrics are perfectly echoed in the delivery from Abbie, understandably sounding like a woman at the end of her tether. With its’ fabulously prominent dobro playing ‘Willow Tree’ hooked me from the start, displaying a definite bluegrass flavour paired with the heat of the South, courtesy of tightknit vocal harmonies.
‘Homeward Bound’ is a track that many will be familiar with, the Simon & Garfunkel classic is given a tremendous reading here. A stripped down, acoustic interpretation sees Laurie get the nod as lead and she steps up admirably. This is a real group effort though, boasting some of the strongest harmony work on the album, complete with an utterly exquisite delivery of that ‘…silently for me‘ line. Next the trio serve up a ‘creepy zombie jam‘, their words not mine, on ‘When It’s All Wrong’. Featuring a protagonist who is only happy when all around them is floundering it comes as no surprise that this downbeat track is one of the moodiest on ‘The Red Album’. Standing up well to repeated listens despite the gloom is testament to the deliciously vampy-sounding vocal work from the singers and the eerie whistling introduced midway through.
‘My Baby Loves Me’ lightens the atmosphere with an injection of pace and playfulness. Clocking in at just over two minutes this fun track is a fascinating mix of styles, backing vocals hark back to 60’s pop whilst the track is again driven by that superb dobro playing. Maybe it should not work, but you know what it definitely does, a joyous ray of sunshine in the middle of the album. Returning to more traditional footing on ‘With A Memory Like Mine’, which was co-written by Darrell Scott, and is an intense reflection on war and fatherhood. Once again the trio more than justify the songwriters faith in them, a male-orientated song it may be but the ladies of Red Molly make it their own. It might be possible to lose count of the number of times the word ‘dobro’ appears in this review, but the playing from Abbie on ‘With A Memory Like Mine’ is sensational.
‘Sing To Me’ is a beautiful lullaby, written by Molly whilst realising how much she would miss loved ones whilst the band were on an upcoming tour to Australia. A sparse production enables the vocals to take centre-stage, allowing them to sweep the listener up and take them to a better place. A special mention also for some splendid, gently rumbling upright bass, which features again on the jazzy ‘Pretend’. A breezy number which sees the unlikely inclusion of trombone, it also has a cracking, breathy siren-like lead vocal from Laurie.
The intriguingly titled ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ is a magnificent bluegrass track, featuring a character who shares the name of the band in its’ lyrics. which provided Abbie with that very idea. It is a song which Red Molly have had countless requests to cut over the years. For those who have longed to hear the result, the wait was definitely worthwhile. Written by English singer-songwriter Richard Thompson this is a storytelling at its absolute best, in 2011 it was included in an ‘All Time 100 Songs’ listing in Time magazine. Sharing lead vocals the trio show no signs of any trepidation they may have felt recording such a revered song, serving up a stellar performance on one of the albums many highlights.
‘Lay Down Your Burden’ perfectly represents the more modern sound that Red Molly have managed to weave throughout ‘The Red Album’. Inevitably that comes with a bigger production, but the band successfully manage not to let that distract from the quality of the song particularly on its catchy call and response chorus. Add in a searing electric dobro solo and more soaring harmonies for a real winner. The album closes with the sweet accapella ‘Copper Ponies’, for a band that excels at immaculate harmonies it is a perfect ending, giving the listener a final chance to hear those three voices lusciously combine.
As with many mistakes, ignorance is no excuse. Therefore my musical ignorance of Red Molly and their work prior to ‘The Red Album’ cannot be excused, but thankfully I have now seen the light. Across its 13 tracks this new album manages to take the very best of a number of genres (Country, folk, bluegrass, blues, jazz) and incorporate them masterfully in to the core sound of Red Molly. Being unfamiliar with their back catalogue I am surprised that it has included fewer songs written by the ladies themselves, as they prove here to be highly capable of crafting quality offerings. The playing throughout, much of it by Abbie, Laurie and Molly is excellent; whilst the vocals and harmonies are first class. There is no weak link here, all three are outstanding singers and the past ten years have served to hone their harmony work to perfection. If ‘The Red Album’ is set to be your introduction to Red Molly, as it was mine, you are in for an absolute treat.
‘The Red Album’ is out now on the band’s own label. Red Molly are set to tour the UK & Ireland in October, to support the release of ‘The Red Album’, check their website for full details.