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The Fretless - Live From Art Farm (Self Release)
With a cover that is a dreamlike collage mixture of John James Audubon-esque birds and lush Rousseau foliage, dotted with vintage dancers and musicians this is a set that intrigues from the get go. The Fretless are on one level, to paraphrase the advert, exactly what it says on the tin, four musicians playing acoustic instruments without frets. Beyond the sharp band moniker that does not do Trent Freeman, Ben Plotnik, Karrnnel Sawitsky and Eric Wright justice, they are so much more than a clever name. There is grace and beauty as well as spark and fire in their playing. The inner sleeve photo, presumably taken at the intriguingly named Art Farm, shows four musicians playing violins and a cello, mid tune, intently watching each other. The clue about their interconnectedness and ability to flow beautifully together is right there on the jacket. Fretlesses repertoire is traditional Irish tunes, connected to dozens of backrooms in County Clare, Donegal or Wicklow. This is not however just a smoky bar session set, a jumper wearing frantic instrumental duel, the 'trad arr' equivalent of jazz blowing or the cutting contest.
Alongside moments of fire and passion there are passages light as air and paper thin. The drawn out cello and violin notes on Dawning Of The Day have a breathy quality like the tune is being slowly blown on a whistle or pipes. The beauty comes from the restraint in the quartet's playing. The music is never dry or academic, there are plenty of moments where the musicians yelps punctuate furious uptempo flights of playing. The Fretless do not use all their virtuosity to smother the joy in four instruments playing together. The arrangements are always interesting on tracks like MacLeod Farewell / Palmers Gate the violins take different lines or parts rather than chasing each at breakneck speed like the worst of traditional music. Throughout the tapping of the violin strings manages to suggest the strum of an acoustic guitar or on Maggie's Set the skittering beat of the bodhran. Then there is the fact that this is a live recording, as if to dispel any suggestions of studio artifice or foul play, there is an audience. The whole set is recorded by three ambient microphones, leaving no room for mistakes or wobble's, this is, to coin a phrase 'warts and all', but frankly I can't hear the slightest suggestion of spots blemishes or protuberances. The playing may be within the Irish tradition, but there are some fine band compositions, as well as arrangements, throughout the set. Ben's excellent Holton Alan Moore's has a 'light as air' train like melody that suggests the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. There are even passages where alongside the ghost strumming guitar, someone manages to evoke an accordion like sound from a violin. In a blind listening many would question the fretless nature of the band. Obviously the point of this review is to motivate you to rush out (or increasingly frantically surf online) and get a copy of this album. The fact that most of it, beautifully filmed, is available on YouTube, shouldn't prevent that. Rather, the stunning videos give you an opportunity to marvel at the dexterity, grace and sheer 'howthefuckdidtheydothat' ness of the instrumental wonder that is The Fretless. Further motivation to support their efforts rather than a disincentive. If the sights and sounds don't motivate you, then either you have no soul or you were expecting an album of funky Jaco Pastorius covers, now there's an idea…