Does an opening song necessarily announce the intent of an album? Not always, but “American Idle Hornpipe” from Ben Freed’s American Idle CD definitely sets the tone for the rest of this all-original instrumental project.
First, we hear Ben’s banjo and Kenny Kosek’s fiddle playing an intricate melody line in unison backed by only a mandolin chop. Then the rest of the band kicks in as the fiddle peels off for a solo ride. Twin mandolins surface later.
“Behind The Barn” changes the sound a bit by bringing in Ben’s resonator guitar which plays solo riffs against the band’s chordal stops before the two join forces. Barry Mitterhoff’s crisp, tasteful mandolin playing is, as always, a joy to listen to. “Song For M&L” winds through a long, slow banjo beginning, backed by a droning fiddle, before breaking into a catchy swing arrangement complete with accordion and electric guitar. The band’s rhythm is tight throughout, but doesn’t have the modern metronomic feel that is so prevalent today.
Ben picks a solid, clean, and, for the most part, melodic banjo style which has some of the bounciness of Allen Shelton’s playing. He is also an inventive tunesmith and one of the strengths of this recording is that most of the numbers have discernible melodies. To my ears, only “Ghost Dance” veers into a jam mode that seems to be more about licks in a minor key than melody. My favorite, “Farmacology,” starts with a funky syncopated banjo lick that has an “In The Mood” feel. The song then heads into the bridge which has its own distinct rhythmic riff. These initial hooks reappear at the end when Ben and his banjo revisit them in harmony. And, yes, I did hear that bit of “Turkey In The Straw”—very playful.
Ben saves the drums and the electric Telecaster banjo for the last tune, “Banjo Island.” Some listeners will undoubtedly love this fringes-of-bluegrass number, but I enjoyed the other nine more. All in all, American Idle is a carefully crafted project in which the crafting never gets in the way of the music—a delightful listen. (Ben Freed, 45 Evergreen Row, Armonk, NY 10504, www.banjoben.com.)MHH