Thursday, September 8, 2011

Della Mae - I Built This Heart

It's appropriate that this reviews follows my review of Greg Kot's Ripped, a book focused on how the Internet has changed the music business and giving examples of paths bands might take to get their music to fans in the Internet/MP3 era (and hopefully, make a bit of money in the process).  As I noted previously in this blog, Boston-based Della Mae used Kickstarter, a startup company that allows artists and entrepreneurs to raise funds directly from patrons or their potential audience, to fund the production and release of new album I Built This Heart.  Della Mae was able to self-release their album, raising almost $12000 from 240 backers (for rewards at various price points) and without giving up any artistic control to a record company or investor.  It will be interesting to see how many bands, especially in niche genres like bluegrass, opt for this sort of approach rather than the traditional route.

I would like to be post-feminist enough to make it through this review without mentioning that Della Mae is entirely composed of female musicians, but it really is core to their identity.  The cover songs on the album were both written by prominent female musicians - "Bowling Green" by Cousin Emmy, and "My Heart's Own Love" by Hazel Dickens, to whom the album was partially dedicated.  The guest stars - Laurie Lewis and Emma Beaton on harmony vocals, Alison Brown on banjo, and Brittany Haas on fiddle - are women as well.  But this ain't no knittin' circle - the characters peopling this album are strong, from the determined walker of "Down To You" to the burned out drunkard of "From the Bottle" to the late wanderer of "Sweet Verona."  There's also a sensuality to the lyrics, but it's more womanly than feminine - the besotted narrator of "The Most" wants to "make love with the windows open / So everyone will know."  No wilting violets, here.

The lyrics wouldn't have such weight if they weren't backed up by songwriter / guitarist Celia Woodsmith's powerhouse singing.  She's a dynamo, with range and passion, capable of cutting loose with a rock n' roll sensibility but also capable of subtlety.  A great example is "Aged Pine," the chorus of which gives the album its title.  The song is a slow waltz that demands both a real vulnerability - it was written during the terminal illness of Woodsmith's father - but a core of emotional strength; if the narrator's heart breaks, she'll "build it back again."  The rest of the band is up to the task of matching Woodsmith's intensity.  Kimber Ludiker is one of the feistiest fiddlers around.  Mandolin player Jenni Lyn Gardner and sometime flatpicker Courtney Hartman also display serious chops, and bass player Amanda Kowalski keeps the whole thing moving.

I Built This Heart is a terrific album, one of the best of the year, and you should pick it up if you like bluegrass, if you like rock, if you like strong female artists, or hell, if you just like music.

Della Mae official site
This review is based on a preview copy of I Built This Heart; the album is not yet available for general release.  Follow this blog or the band's official site for updates on its release.

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