The most important facts concerning The 442s Kickstarter-funded self-released eponymous debut album is this: the music the quartet presents, composed by multi-instrumentalist (piano, guitar, accordion, melodica, glockenspiel) group member Adam Maness, is as pleasing, scintillating, smart and life affirming as any you’re likely to hear in this or any other year and the group itself is one of the major finds of 2014.
Apart from that, the who, what, when, where, why and how of this astonishing, seemingly out-of-nowhere foursome includes the following factoids: violinist Shawn Weill, a Chicago native, and cellist Bjorn Ranheim, a Minnesota native, met when both were with the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, FL. Both are now members of the St. Louis Symphony. There, in the Gateway City, Weill and Ranheim crossed paths with Maness and double-bassist Sydney Rodway, both of whom were/are entrenched in the town’s close-knit jazz scene and were doing projects with local jazz-pop vocalist of the first rank Erin Bode and St. Louis Symphony concertmaster David Halen (Mr. Rodway does double duty as Ms. Bode’s husband). In the spring of 2012 they began exploring common musical ground over good food and fine beer (by their own account), in and of itself a splendid reason to make a joyful noise, and by dint of being collectively inspired by the 2012 Grammy winning album The Goat Rodeo Sessions, a set of cross-genre explorations by Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and soon-to-be-MacArthur Fellowship winner Chris Thile. As a group name the fellows in question here simply adopted as a moniker the number otherwise known as the standard modern orchestral tuning (442 hz). Also, as Mr. Ranheim noted in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, 442 is the street address of a building in New York City where Mr. Maness once lived and is the current address of the St. Louis residence of Mr. Rodway and Ms. Bode.
The 442s, ‘Shibuya.’ Adam Maness (glockenspiel), Syd Rodway (bass), Bjorn Ranheim (cello), Shawn Weill (violin)
There’s more: the 442s enlisted the services of artist James Walker at St. Louis’s Husbandmen agency (“a creative collaboration aimed at making good things”) to design a most interesting album package. In addition to the all-important CD, it includes two paper compasses and a foldout map indicating land masses and oceans with certain locations noted, each of which is named for a song on the album. It’s all pretty cool, however recondite. Welcome to the world of the 442s.
But, you say, what about the music? Fans of the Goat Rodeo Sessions and of the Punch Brothers will immediately be in familiar territory with the opening track, the bright, languid instrumental “Shibuya” with its rising and skittering violin-cello dialogue, its chiming flurry from the glockenspiel, the bass lines intertwining among the violin and cello parts. To these ears, the 442s begin asserting their own identity on the second cut, “Great Blue C,” in which the jazz-classical boundary line is completely blurred (Duke Ellington would be proud) in an arrangement featuring a jittery violin anxiously pacing above a rather mellow melodica before the cello rumbles in and engages the violin and cello (there might be an accordion underneath it all too) in a few bars of hurly-burly before the pace picks up and everyone begins sprinting to the finish line—until, at the 2:51 mark, a Brubeckian piano joins the fray with a lively outburst. It all sounds like it might have been part of an evocative soundtrack for a ‘60s Italian film. The first big emotional peak arrives with the fourth cut, “Heston’s,” triggered by the aching Appalachian beauty of Ranheim’s cello and Weill’s violin soloing. The winsome theme established, the arrangement continues to lean heavily on the melody’s earthy beauty, and Weill’s temperate exploration of it as Rodway enhances it with a delicate, unobtrusive bass solo deep in the mix—you might actually hear the bass with “new ears,” as Yo-Yo Ma would say, in light of Rodway’s sensitive performance here. One of the most delightful bits here is “Irish Is Reel.” Only intermittently Irish in feel, this spirited workout spotlights not only a lively fiddle, but also extended soloing by Maness on piano and Ranheim on cello, exchanging “reel” parts in a way folks in the Ould Sod might well appreciate. And what to make of “Chelsea”? It’s all skittering strings and cello and bass rumblings save for those moments when the tempo slows, the mood darkens and suddenly someone is whistling on the track, whistling an eerie, foreboding cry right out of an Ennio Morricone soundtrack (those of a certain generation might also hear echoes of the theme from The Whistler, the popular 1940s radio mystery drama that aired on CBS from 1942 to 1955 and also had a one-year run as a TV in 1954).
The 442s, ‘Heston’s,’ with Adam Maness (guitar), Syd Rodway (bass), Bjorn Ranheim (cello), Shawn Weill (violin)
Although this is largely an acoustic instrumental album, its few vocal performances are guaranteed to stick with you. Despite the dynamism of the violin-guitar setting, “The Caves and The Cold,” the first song with lyrics, doesn’t probe for great depth of feeling, and the lyrics boil down to: “We should move to the caves and the cold/we should move to the caves and the cold/no one questions the brave and the bold/no one questions the brave and the bold/say goodbye to all our friends/’cause we’re not coming back again/we should move to the caves and the cold.” Needless to say, this leaves many questions unanswered, which may be the point. The feel of the piece betrays the influence of Thile the songwriter, and to yours truly evokes the aesthetic being developed so promisingly back in 2009 by the band known as WPA, the members of which included Sean and Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, Luke Bulla and chief songwriter Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket. Unfortunately, WPA’s impressive debut is all we’ve heard from a group destined, it seemed, for big things. The 442s may never have heard WPA, but for some “The Caves and The Cold” is a striking evocation of what might have been. Far better, “Hohner” explores what seems to be a complicated father-son relationship described both in words and in the restless musical backing (the whistler emerges here too, doubled, but in this instance it sounds more like the theme song from “The Andy Griffith Show”), with the band supporting the lead vocalist with close-knit harmonies reminiscent of early Crosby, Stills & Nash.
SELECTED TRACK: The 442s with Erin Bode (vocals), ‘The Road’
The vocal star here, though, is Ms. Bode herself. Appearing on two cuts, she easily illustrates why she is held in such high critical regard and has such an affecting effect on audiences. The tender ballad “The One” seems to be a stab at reconciliation—or, possibly, healing—with her airy voice supported by soft, humming strings and spare piano until she rises into a heart tugging upper register, when the strings gently follow and enhance her upward flight. Later, “The Road” is less moody, with a sunny welcoming string arrangement and a ringing tambourine setting the scene before Ms. Bode enters singing softly, “Move the volume up and down until we find the right balance/there’s a corner that I’ve found/between hammers and silence…” With the violin and cello weaving angular patterns around her, she asserts, “I’ll be waiting in the summer and the snow/when you’re tired of being alone…” Guitar and plucked violin soften the track’s texture and add a pastoral, folk flavor to the tune. This in turn sets up the singer’s compelling final appeal: “When you’re tired of the city and you’re pretty sure you’re losing your head/why don’t you come out here and talk to me instead? I’ll be wait-i-i-ng across the mountain road…” A beautiful track, this, with its most perfect meshing of textures between the singer and the tonal possibilities of the instruments backing her, the totality of the performance demonstrating camaraderie you would expect of players with far more experience together than these have had.
In the abovementioned St. Louis Public Radio interview, Mr. Maness revealed the origins of some of his songs as being rooted in specific places and events lingering in memory. The opening tune, “Shibuya,” for example, is named after a lunch-restaurant district of Tokyo “with a bunch of noodle shops in three or four blocks. The first day that I was there, I looked for the longest line outside one of the shops and it was the best Udon noodles in a bowl I’d ever had. And I never forgot about that day and those noodles. Sort of the inspiration for the tune is the hustle and bustle of the neighborhood and the smell of the noodles.” The beautiful “Heston’s,” he says “is actually about northern Minnesota. It’s about a resort on Gunflint Lake, one of the Boundary Waters lakes, just up the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais. I’ve recorded two albums on this grouping of cabins on this resort called Heston’s with Erin Bode. And it’s just one of my favorite spots on earth.” Similar tales no doubt explain the animating impulse of songs such as “Chelsea,” “Hondo’s,” “Irish Is Reel,” “Hohner” and others. It seems, then, that for all the connections the 442s’ music has to the work of the Punch Brothers and the Goat Rodeo Sessions, perhaps the most profound, if unnamed, influence evident here is that of Mark O’Connor, who works in these same modes with a similar sound, taking the stuff of biography and topography, of American folk music and its deepest European roots, and forging from these a new American classical music. Assuming this is not a one-off project but the start of something capable of both growth and daring vision, we will look back on The 442s as the surprising, ever-fresh debut of an important American band.
All this, plus they have a supremely cool t-shirt for sale on the group website. Really, what more could you ask?