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Laura Cortese & the Dance CardsLaura Cortese & the Dance Cards
Album: California Calling
Label: Compass
Tracks: 11

Boston's favourite adopted daughter Laura Cortese, and her talented band, the Dance Cards, have made a striking album, her debut on Compass Records, which is both within and subtly outside the folk tradition that she has emerged from.

Cortese has the reputation of being one of the hardest working musicians on the circuit, and has been absorbing influences from many and diverse collaborators over the last dozen or so years (including Pete Seeger, Band of Horses, Jocie Adams and many more), as well as touring regularly and releasing a hatful of her own albums. She is now emerging as one of the most distinct and compelling voices on the scene, and this recording showcases her on top form.

The album begins with 'The Low Hum', Jenna Moynihan's banjo sketching wistful arpeggios over Valerie Thompson's cello and Natalie Bohrn's bowed bass, before a wash of harmonies tell of the sweet sadness of lost dreams. A love song to her birth state, 'California Calling' opens with pizzicato fiddle, a steady bass groove topped by Cortese's evocative vocal. 'Three Little Words,' co-written with Zachariah Hickman (one of several collaborators), is musically of the tradition, but then unfolds into an unexpected bittersweet tale of growth and love and relationships. But as Cortese told FATEA:

"I'm a fan of the surprise attack. There is something about the unexpected that allows us to open ourselves to receive and give more fluidly."

These are difficult days for creative artists. Faced with a word gone mad the temptation is to hide behind a fa├žade. And Cortese admits being tempted to retreat into a suit of armour, but recognises the need for strength through vulnerability. Her words again:

"I realized that staying numb and suited up in that way would not allow for the change I want to see. I would need to grieve, to remain open, to give and receive."

This is a beautifully crafted album, of honest regret and short, golden autumn days and skipping stones across the surface of a lake. But what shines through is the honestly and integrity of Cortese and the musicality of her superb band.

The music is complex but sounds simple. On 'Hold On', polyrhythmic harmony vocals lead into a blues shuffle, before settling into an old timey bass driven swing; then a string quartet comes in playing Bach on speed, as the groove morphs into something close to ambient dub-step, vocals come back in, topped off by psychotic cello cadenza in the far distance. Take a bow producer and keys player Sam Kassirer for keeping this brave vision aurally coherent.

The album closes with a cover of Taylor Ashton song 'If you can Hear Me', an ambient loop leading into a gentle pop/folk story of longing and love, harmony vocals, subtle banjo and a wash of strings and electronica. Beautiful.

A fascinating slice of darkly ambient Americana, and a strikingly original new album, she's touring the UK until 14th October.

Laura Thomas