13 Songs

EDITORS’ NOTES

With their third full-length album, Black Prairie prove they’re not just a side project with members of The Decemberists. The sound is still plenty varied, but there’s a focus to the musicianship that seems less of a novelty and more of a serious pursuit. In short, they’re Portland, Ore.’s 2014 answer to the U.K.’s Fairport Convention of the '60s. The harmonies and folk rock of “Songs to Be Sung” resemble the feel of Unhalfbricking, while frontwoman Annalisa Tornfelt finds herself in the Sandy Denny role, which she never plays as anyone other than herself. Her solo performance on “If I Knew You Then” is striking, as are the moments she has to herself on “Cold Day” and “Count to Ten.” “The White Tundra” turns into an epic track (think “Tam Lin,” Fairport fans) based on band founder Chris Funk’s guitar riff and Tornfelt’s Norse-based poetry. Whatever bluegrass roots the band once revealed have been overpowered with electric instruments and a clear modern sound that’s well pointed out by producer Vance Powell (Dead Weather, Red Fang). 

EDITORS’ NOTES

With their third full-length album, Black Prairie prove they’re not just a side project with members of The Decemberists. The sound is still plenty varied, but there’s a focus to the musicianship that seems less of a novelty and more of a serious pursuit. In short, they’re Portland, Ore.’s 2014 answer to the U.K.’s Fairport Convention of the '60s. The harmonies and folk rock of “Songs to Be Sung” resemble the feel of Unhalfbricking, while frontwoman Annalisa Tornfelt finds herself in the Sandy Denny role, which she never plays as anyone other than herself. Her solo performance on “If I Knew You Then” is striking, as are the moments she has to herself on “Cold Day” and “Count to Ten.” “The White Tundra” turns into an epic track (think “Tam Lin,” Fairport fans) based on band founder Chris Funk’s guitar riff and Tornfelt’s Norse-based poetry. Whatever bluegrass roots the band once revealed have been overpowered with electric instruments and a clear modern sound that’s well pointed out by producer Vance Powell (Dead Weather, Red Fang). 

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5

15 Ratings

So unfortunate.

Mongoose Gal,

Over the past seven years or so, Black Prairie has gained steam as an ensemble, combining deft and eclectic instrumentation with wild, quirky songwriting. Their songs and instrumentals are often arresting, appearing to stem from every ethnic musical tradition (be it Eastern European, Celtic, or bluegrass) -- and none of them -- all at once. Their arrangements have resisted predictability just as their overall sound has resisted the necessity of genre.

But _Fortune_ is, sadly, a completely different story.

This album commits many of the worst and most predictable mistakes of contemporary "crossover" music: boring, quasi-pop songwriting (with meaningless refrains like "I'll keep on waiting for you" or, worse, "Ah-ah-ah"s); an omnipresent and frankly obnoxious drum backdrop; and over-reliance on bland, characterless vocal leads. The Black Prairie we knew and loved -- with its dark, irreverent blending of accordion, fiddle, dobro, and other instruments that one can barely identify or pronounce (cymbalom!) -- is nowhere to be found on this record. Instead, _Fortune_ delivers wannabe-pop monotony. Every song sounds exactly the same, with the drum set banging away in your ears. Annalisa Tornfelt's vocals, normally a centerpiece of this group, lose all of their subtlety and personality when forced into the rigid pop rhythms of these songs. And the album does not feature even ONE instrumental -- a clear departure for this group.

Listening to _Fortune_, I kept wishing the producer would have taken a few giant steps back and just let these extremely talented musicians play their instruments. The mixing and production, even, is sloppy on this record: the loudest instrument on every cut is the drum, and the more delicate, interesting melodic lines played by accordion, dobro, etc. become so much sonic mush in the background, while a wall of compressed, synthetic-sounding vocals fades in and out all the while.

Yuck.

Other bands have made the mistake of mixing and marketing for a supposed middle ground "pop" audience that, in reality, does not exist. Laura Veirs' 2007 _Saltbreakers_ is one such example of an artist putting too much faith in a production team, and too little faith in her own talent. But Veirs found her way back, and has produced several wonderful albums since. Here's hoping Black Prairie succeeds in finding their way back to themselves, too.

BLEW MY MIND

Rooberry,

I've loved Black Prarie ever since I first heard them a couple years ago and they continue to blow my mind! I've had the privlege of seeing them live twice now and I've never been disappointed with a performance or with an album of theirs! Buy this album if you want your world to be rocked on repeat.

About Black Prairie

Portland's Black Prairie began in 2007 when Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk, having discovered the joys of the Dobro guitar, and Decemberists bassist Nate Query decided to start a mostly instrumental and acoustic string band as a side project. They enlisted another Decemberists member, Jenny Conlee, on accordion, and added two other veteran Portland musicians from popular local bands, guitarist and songwriter Jon Neufield, who played in Dolorean and Jackstraw, and singer and violinist Annalisa Tornfelt, who played in the Woolwines and Bearfoot. The resulting band blended together an impressive array of styles and textures, from tilted bluegrass, klezmer, and runaway Gypsy music to folk, blues, and a bit of jazz, resulting in a unique and fresh take on a kind of free-spirited alternative Americana. Signing to Sugar Hill Records, the band released an impressive debut, Feast of the Hunters' Moon, in 2010, following it up with A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart in 2012. With Tornfelt emerging as a more than capable lead vocalist, Black Prairie's third album, Fortune, took a hard left turn into garage folk-rock territory, and featured all band originals. ~ Steve Leggett

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