Cahalen Morrison and Eli West Give Fresh Air to Some Old Sounds

by delarue

There’s an army of curmudgeous out there who’ll be the first to say, petulantly, that what Cahalen Morrison and Eli West do isn’t bluegrass, or country music. They’re right – it isn’t. What they do is energetic acoustic songs with rock, bluegrass, country, American and British folk influences. They’re sort of an edgier teens counterpart to 70s hippie acoustic gropus like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band or Aztec Two-Step, putting their own spin on an old sound. Multi-instrumentalist Morrison’s ancestors hail from the Isle of Lewis off the Scottish coast, home to a rich and rugged musical tradition that percolated down to him. If he does it somewhat differently, that’s only to be expected: after all, you can’t keep music in a museum. Our Lady of the Tall Trees, his second album with guitarist Eli West (a name worthy of a Robert Hunter character, huh?) blends the antique vernacular that these guys obviously love so much into a current-day one, both lyrically and musically.

Morrison and West have a warm musical chemistry and add soaring vocal harmonies on several of these songs. Morrison plays several different guitars as well as banjo and mandolin. His mandolin playing, in particular, is sensationally good: when he picks that thing up, he grows fangs. West is a nimble flatpicker whose style draws as much on jamband rock as it does on Americana, although he doesn’t let those uncertain open chords linger too long or slide down the slope into the meh-ness of Dave Matthews and his ilk.

The opening track, Stone to Send, sets the stage, pensive lyrics juxtaposed with the first of many bitingly delicous mandolin interludes. They bring a tricky polyrhythmic edge to an Elizabethan waltz and then add understatedly psychedelic guitar to All I Can Do, a stark, minor key banjo/mandolin tune. Loretta has a casually swaying acoustic Grateful Dead-ly vibe: are the words “play your blue and wailin’ song,” or “play your Boo and Waylon song”?

The title track nicks a well-known John Prine tune for the verse, with similarly surreal lyrics: “She wraps herself in rice and greens and all the other fancy things she bought… supper is served!”

Morrison and West depict a vividly pensive campfire conversation with their guitars on a first-rate version of the traditional western ballad The Poor Cowboy; a little later, they take the bluegrass standard Church Street Blues back to its British folk origins. The lively playing on the country waltz All for the Sake of Day downplays its brooding lyric – it wouldn’t be out of place on the Dead’s Reckoning album.

The next track, Heartland Sea takes the starkly bluesy tune underneath it and gives it wings. There’s also a long, crisply delivered banjo/guitar bluegrass breakdown, and a funny honkytonk song done as Appalachian folk, literally taking the style back to its roots. The album ends with Red Prairie Dawn, a laid-back but spiky instrumental that wouldn’t be out of place on an early Pat Metheny album if the guitars were plugged in.

Fans of Chris Thile and his work with the Punch Brothers will love this stuff, although these guys are considerably more roughewn and less polished. Old Deadheads will too. It’s also tempting to say that the Bon Iver crowd might like it, but that might be a stretch, since Morrison and West put plenty of sweat into building a narrative or trying to put an emotion across rather than faking it.