I’ve listened to so much more music than I’ve ever played, but l had aspirations of learning an instrument once. I wanted to play violin because I had seen Rick Danko play one in The Last Waltz. I wanted to be Rick Danko in all regards. But violin is supposed to be too hard for someone’s first instrument, so I picked up mandolin because it has the same tuning as a violin, so I figured I could graduate someday. I wanted to be Rick Danko but had to start as Levon Helm. My playing peaked at passable strumming and I never so much as held a violin, but I developed a bond with the mandolin, and I listened for it everywhere. I’d tune my mandolin down to approach Neil Young-like guitar tunings, so I liked it sounding like a lo-fi guitar reliever, not for it’s own unique potential as bluegrass foundation. The mandolin that stood out most to me then was on Jon Snodgrass’ Visitor’s Band, especially on “Long Way Found.” Touchstone mandolin players like Sam Bush sounded thin and distracting, but in Snodgrass’ album, he strikes a balance of shimmery and sour. Recently, the band Feral Conservatives from Virginia Beach added another seminal mandolin to my canon.
In Feral Conservatives, the songs are carried completely by Rashie Rosenfarb’s mandolin and voice. They’re the only mandolin-based band I currently know. And they’re on Egghunt Records, a great label from Richmond that put out the first Daddy Issues EP last year (and has another killer record coming from Lucy Dacus at the end of February). I feel like I can imagine the joy of middle-school band kids hearing their instruments put toward cooler ends in ska. A mandolin–a lead mandolin–in a cool band on a cool label with cool songs!
“Twenty Eight” perhaps represents the album best: shadows of reverb, sharp drums puncturing the airy mandolin, and a pop hook doused in tried triumph: “I wanted just to leave the house / and carry nothing. / Where are you now?” All that and a well-done bridge that targets the narrator’s cheating partner, rather lingering nastily the other woman: “Why couldn’t you just / keep your hands off her?” The mandolin hits that sweet spot all the way through–harnessing the instrument’s glimmering high end, but played with the aggression of guitar. Highly recommended album–catchy and substantial alt-pop with the sneaky power of mandolin!
FFO: Honeycutters, Scrawl, Heavenly, Eugenius, Seam, Velocity Girl, John K. Samson. Listen to and buy Here’s to Almost on CD or digital from Egghunt Records or the band itself. Follow them on Facebook.