Arnie Naiman and Chris Coole, with Kathy Reid-Naiman
 - Five Strings Attached With No Backing
Merriweather Records

Arnie Naiman-banjo and guitar; Chris Coole-banjo and vocals; Kathy Reid-Naiman-guitar and vocals.

Winfield's Fancy/Don Valley Ramble/Elkhorn Ridge/Bloody Red River/The Blackest Crow/Darlin' Nelly Grey/Fretless/Country Blues/The Skinny Guy's Gotta Eat/Trip to Restoule/Sally Ann Johnson/Sam's Dream/John Henry/Walking the Dog/Ducks on the Pond/John Hardy/Quince Dillon's High D/Mind the Gap.

Here's an enjoyable, rather laid-back collection of mainly clawhammer banjo music from two mainstays of Toronto's folk scene. Arnie Naiman and Chris Coole play both traditional (mostly Appalachian) tunes, and original compositions. The two musicians have rather different but complementary approaches: Naiman has more feeling for traditional style when he plays mountain tunes, and his own pieces are witty and quirkily inventive; Coole's approach to old tunes derives from the more studied esthetic of the urban melodic clawhammer school and his original tunes are plaintive, moody, arpeggiated. Some vocals, twin banjo work, and guitar backup vary the program.

It makes all the sense in the world for a contemporary urban musician to make his music from the meaningful attributes, large and small, of his daily life, and where some early mountain banjo picker might have honored his old coon dog with a clawhammer tune, Chris Coole was inspired to compose "Winfield's Fancy" by his dog of that name who "does whatever he fancies"; and the tune saunters, pokes around, and moves high and low in a delightful way. Arnie Naiman's "pooch" Merlyn is clearly a different canine, more resolute, perhaps; and Naiman's tune "Walking the Dog," a good original Canadian reel, moves along briskly as we imagine Merlyn would. Humorous and personal, another Naiman original is called "The Skinny Guy's Gotta Eat," and we don't doubt it for a minute. Again by contrast, Coole's composition "Sam's Dream" (dedicated to a newborn Sam Reddick-Hendrey) is lovely, delicate, lovingly picked.

Coole plays a couple of southern banjo tunes cleanly and skillfully: I liked the raggy "Bloody Red River" and his setting of the Henry Reed fiddle tune "Quince Dillon's High D." He sings both "John Henry" and a rare Byard Ray version of "John Hardy" among others, and I find that his singing lacks the edge needed to put across these mountain songs. The 5-string banjo has its own built-in bite, even when played delicately, due to the very nature of the instrument, but the human voice is capable of many sounds and timbres and a satisfying singing style that works with the banjo, particularly in Appalachian material, needs to be nurtured if one does not grow up with it. I wish Chris Coole's singing of "John Henry" had more of the verve and intensity that Kathy Reid-Naiman brings to her treble line when she joins him in the chorus. As I mentioned earlier, Arnie Naiman is more oriented to mountain-style picking, both when he delivers fairly close readings of traditional models, as Kyle Creed's "Darlin' Nelly Grey," and "Ducks on the Pond," or in his creative finger-picking approach to "Sally Ann Johnson" (with Chris on clawhammer banjo.) And his singing, on the haunting "The Blackest Crow," while not particularly Southern stylistically, somehow works as lyrical expression.

If you are seeking contemporary musicians who are engaging the more sinewy side of clawhammer banjo, this release will not be of prime interest to you; give it a listen if you want to hear urbane, personal, and highly developed musicality applied to the tradition, along with and some nicely conceived and played new contemporary pieces.

Art Rosenbaum