FISTS OF VIOLETS
North Carolina native Sarah Alden, now a Brooklyn, NY, resident, began playing violin at age 5, thanks to an aunt who taught her Suzuki method classical technique. Given her location, and the instrument she played, it was inevitable she would become conversant with bluegrass, country, old-time and indigenous folk music as she developed her own instrumental voice. But somewhere along the way, a chance encounter in an Asheville, NC, record store introduced her to klezmer music, and she has not been the same since. She took off for Eastern Europe, and other influences began to seep into her style–the multicultural music of the Balkans, gypsy jazz–and the result of those travels is all over her first album, Fists of Violets, recorded largely in her Brooklyn apartment. This delightful, imaginative long player is best described by the artist’s own mission statement posted on her website. A better capsule review of her album could not be had: “My mission as an artist is to create a space where people have the permission to experience bountiful joy, connectedness, something thrilling and something fun. To create music that is unbelievably dense and thick music and teeters from chaotic to angelic.”
Sarah Aldren, ‘Willie the Weeper,’ from her album Fists for Violets. Most of the album was recorded in her Brooklyn apartment.
For the chaotic, try the Alden-penned title track, written in the wake of a close friend’s death. No somber reflection this, it charges out of the gate with an intense ostinato guitar riff as Alden cries, “It shatters, it breaks, it falls/Heaven comes down and takes a fall,” in full punk fury before violins cut loose with a jittery, anxious riff and Alden returns repeating the opening couplet. The song broadens out with a flurry of ramshackle percussion and Rima Fand joining Alden on vocals. Thus the template, with the added element of frantically sawing violins enhancing the song’s tense, frantic ambiance. Or try the 4:11 high stepping treatment of the venerable “Ida Red” featuring some tasty lap steel work by Raphael Mcgregor, Alden’s own eager fiddle, Brandon Seabrook with some hot, frailing banjo work, Kyle Sanna’s spitfire electric guitar solo and a freewheeling Alden vocal in which she slips in a “chicken in the bread pan picking out dough” quote from “Granny Does Your Dog Bite” (or “Soldier’s Joy,” take your pick).
Sarah Alden and the Red Hot Rubies perform ‘Ida Red.’ Personnel: Sarah Alden, fiddle; Kaethe Hostetter, fiddle; Aurora Nealand, accordion; Brandon Seabrook, banjo; Jason Sypher, bass. The song is included on Ms. Alden’s Fists of Violets album.
For the angelic, consider the dirge-like rendering of the wrenching “When Sorrows Encompass Me Round,” in which the very plainness of Alden’s singing voice heightens the song’s tragic vision, with a sense of foreboding supplied by Scott Kettner’s unrelenting snare drum rolls and Alden’s own searing fiddling. On a more lighthearted note, the laid-back groove and faintly country overtones of the traditional gem “Dirk’s Tune” (named after an African-American woman discovered by ethnomusicologist John Lomax singing the song in a migratory work camp in 1908) frame a heartfelt Alden vocal, as do the aching twin fiddles she and Rima Fand supply. In the a memorable club scene in the 1937 film Topper, Hoagy Carmichael, accompanying himself on piano, serenades Cary Grant and Constance Bennett with his cheery love song, “Old Man Moon.” On Fists of Violets, Ms. Alden steps away from the tumult she’s created elsewhere and settles into a bright, carefree piano-and-vocal reading of Carmichael’s song–it may not be angelic, but it’s certainly charming, as is the tender “Aunt Viola’s Waltz” instrumental.
As a vocalist Sarah Alden isn’t going to melt hearts; her singing is functional and gets the job done but her limited range and expressiveness mean the tools she needs in order to probe deeper into subtext for more complex, meaningful shadings either aren’t there or are undeveloped. Also, the songs more directly rooted in world music styles sound much like what another Brooklyn band, The Sway Machinery, has been doing for several years now with a more challenging singer and ace guitarist in Jeremiah Lockwood. Which is not to suggest Fists of Violets is inferior to anything or that Ms. Alden is small potatoes. This is a pleasant enough ride, and given the smarts and the high level of musicianship informing these proceedings, the next leg of it is a most tantalizing prospect.