In Brief: Imagine Nickel Creek with slightly more of a pop/rock bent, and you get this young and eager band, who delivers much better results on this EP than you might expect from a side project by an actress who used to be in a tennybopper girl group.
If you told me to check a band out because you had enjoyed several of their songs that were featured in a teen drama on the CW or ABC Family, I’d probably look at you like you were crazy. It’s true that some of my favorite musicians have managed to milk the “dramatic soundtrack moment” for all that it’s worth, perhaps gaining them more recognition (and residuals to keep them doing what they love) than they would have through pure radio play. As innocent and inoffensive as they may be, the world needs its Lifehouses, its Katie Herzigs, and its Sleeping at Lasts. But I certainly wouldn’t expect a band with a strong hint of folksy twang to make repeat appearances on such a show. Thankfully, the friend who recommended that I check out The Good Mad late last year made no mention of the fact that fiddle player and vocalist Allie Gonino was one of the cast members of The Lying Game, and that their latest EP, Strangeworthy, was entirely comprised of music they’d recorded that had been featured on the show. I know nothing about the show, or any show on ABC Family for that matter, but it doesn’t really sound like it’s aimed at my particular demographic. The Good Mad’s music, on the other hand, is right up my alley.
What was interesting about the timing of this recommendation is that my friend compared them favorably to Nickel Creek, one of my all-time favorite bands who I’ve missed dearly since their split in 2007 (though I have enjoyed its individual members in various solo/side project configurations). That’s a band that as far as I’m concerned, contains three of the most phenomenal musicians on the planet, so comparing anyone else’s work to theirs is a bit of a tall order. And while it’s true that The Good Mad doesn’t have any mind-blowing, flat-picking, foot-stomping instrumentals in their repertoire yet, their quirky folk/pop hybrid approach and their two-guys-and-a-girl dynamic gives them a strikingly similar configuration. They’re certainly less concerned about pleasing bluegrass purists, as drums the occasional electric guitar appear in their work from time to time. But Allie’s violin and the vocal trade-off between the three are often center-stage, to the point where a few of their songs feel like they could have been lost tracks from the sessions for This Side or Why Should the Fire Die? Whether the tone of their songs is cheery or melancholy or downright off-kilter, there’s an anything-goes sort of feel to their music that fans of the Creek’s later albums will no doubt appreciate, and there are times when lead guitarist Adam Brooks sounds like a dead ringer for Chris Thile, and the way that bassist and sometimes ukulele-ist Andy Fischer-Price (who doesn’t play children’s instruments, but with that name, should probably give a try just for laughs) plays off of him reminds me of Sean Watkins, while Allie can swing back and forth between meek and sassy in much the same way as Sara Watkins. It’s downright eerie at times.
Of course, Nickel Creek recently got back together and recorded a new album, and I’ve heard it, and it is as intriguing as their old stuff, so we certainly don’t need another band trying to fill that void, and I don’t mean to paint The Good Mad as copycats. There are some musical ideas here that, if fleshed out a little better, would really help to establish a different identity for the band if and when they get around to releasing a full-length album. With The Lying Game cancelled after merely two seasons, I suppose they’ll need an outlet other than TV to get their music heard, but they sound like the kind of group that could easily build up a devoted live following, and I think it says a lot that even with the monarchs of quirky, poppy bluegrass back in the saddle, that hasn’t diminished my enjoyment of Strangeworthy or its earlier predecessor, the Alta EP. The eight tracks on Strangeworthy, in particular, are an excellent introduction to a band that I hope will be around for a lot longer than a network drama with a fleeting target audience could ever hope to last.
1. What Money Paid For
The first track is a testament to the group’s ability to build something grand out of stark ingredients. There’s no embellishment here beyond the core trio of acoustic guitar, bass, and fiddle, but they all weave together beautifully, as do the vocals, which trade the leads back and forth before dovetailing into a strong chorus. This song takes economic fears head on, imagining a time when money is no more and we look back and wonder what the vast empires of societies long ago were built on. Though abstract at times, it has a bit of a prophetic tone to it, as if to say that all of this worrying over investments and price points and so forth ultimately keeps us in shackles. The group contrasts this with the innocent exuberance of letting go of those constraints: “I have no fear of the crash, of the tumbling market/Why bother saving with holes in my pockets?/There’s too many lovers that don’t mean a thing/We should carve our initials into the machine/’Cause it’s all a relic someday/We can not look back and wonder what money paid for.” Allie’s fiddle, in particular, seems to hit all of the right emotional notes, and if this is the sort of music that was highlighted during a scene in a network television show, then I’m honestly quite surprised it was left with such a delightfully un-polished, homespun feel to it.
2. Follow Your Heart
The group’s folk/bluegrass leanings meet up with contemporary pop/rock in a track that unabashedly emphasizes its rhythm section, with the drums propelling it forward at full sprint from its very first second. it’s one of the catchiest songs on the EP, thanks to Allie’s violin, which hammers the song’s main chorus riff home before we even get to the lyrics. The strong melody here is full of defiant sass, which is fitting for a song that encourages someone to question everything they’ve been taught: “Who says your Father’s the Son of God?/Old man, there’s things you never thought of/Loose ends you never tied up/The truth is what you’re running from.” Of course, you can probably tell from the title that this is all going to lead to a touchy-feely “trust your own instincts” sort of conclusion, and I’ve honestly never been a big fan of the phrase “Follow your heart”, because it can be wrong just as easily as it is right. So the song loses a few points for that cliche, even if the spirit of it – not taking everything you’ve been told at face value – is something that I can identify with. I love that even at their most radio-friendly, the group doesn’t mind splitting up into layered vocal parts and throwing little bits of instrumental flair in there, giving us something more than the basic catchy folk/pop ingredients to work with.
3. Stepping Stone
Allie’s strong voice leads the way in this bouncy, slinky, little number, which once again demonstrates the group’s gift for melody. There’s something incredibly seductive about her precise fiddle attack and her sultry “ooh-ooh-ooh”s twist and bend their way throughout this song, with nary a dull moment in between. The bass and drums help to keep things lively while the boys lend their support on harmony vocals, right up to a thrilling bit of acapella at the end that makes me wonder what this group could pull off if they ditched the instrumentation completely for a whole track someday. I don’t know what to say about the lyrics to this one, which seem to be about going through some sort of a transitional phase in life and wondering if a previous closed chapter was worth it or if it was all just wasted time. The minor key melody seems to reflect uncertainty while the confident rhythm seems to reflect the opposite. And I love how that tension flawlessly drives the entire song.
4. Bird in Another Tree
Speaking of songs with inherent contradictions in them, this one seems to delight in its abrupt, quirky shifts back and forth from its quick, rambling verse to its slow, swaying chorus. it took some getting used to, especially because I enjoyed the rapid-fire lyrics and quick-fingered guitar picking at the beginning of the song, so it felt like being thrown into a completely different song when it suddenly jumped to a simple, relaxed strum in 6/8 time for the chorus. Adam and Allie go through another endearing bit of vocal trade-off here, playing the role of two lovers who are unsure about whether to wait on each other or just get on with their lives, as each verse describes their various activities, ending in “Just so you know, if you need me.” The chorus then apologizes for getting lured away: “Lately, forgive me, I’ve been singing to a bird in another tree.” Is this just the harsh reality of life as a traveling musician, or is it some plot point from the kind of TV show that sounds like it probably had to fill a certain quota for love triangles per half-season arc, or what? I don’t know, but it’s fun in its own weird way.
5. In the Grey
This stunning ballad – possibly the emotional climax of The Good Mad’s work so far – features Allie at her most Sara Watkins-esque. The way her voice goes from meek and mystified to powerful and unabashedly sorrowful over the course of four and a half minutes reminds me of a few of the more vulnerable moments from Sara’s last solo album, though stylistically, the way that this ballad morphs from a simple acoustic arrangement into a much fuller sound, with piano and drums and harmonica and spine-tingling vocal harmonies, definitely helps the group to stand apart from that other band that I’m always tempted to compare them to. You really feel the sense of loss in her voice as she navigates through yet another stunning melody, singing of grey clouds that began to loom over a relationship that meant a lot to her, which she mistook as a call to go off on some great adventure (possibly evoking parallels to the cyclone that swept Dorothy away to Oz, even if this comparison is never explicitly made), when in fact it just spelled trouble, plain and simple. The song plays as an apology for letting herself get in too deep and lose sight of what was important, and while we all know how sad folk/country songs that lament being such a fool for letting someone go typically play out, this one is still a fine contribution to that long-standing tradition.
6. My Words
This two-minute interlude finds the Good mad briefly fantasizing that they are a jam band, trading acoustic guitar for electric and laying down some reasonably nice guitar and fiddle licks over a nice little drum and bass groove. it seems a bit out of place, but it’s enjoyable listening for the first minute or so, until it starts to lose track of where it’s going, leading to a premature fade-out, as if this was just a spontaneous moment in the studio. I wouldn’t mind hearing it developed into an instrumental break in the middle of a more fully realized song, but as it is, it’s a bit out of context.
7. Sail On
Again emphasizing the group’s knack for merging acoustic folk sensibilities with catchy rhythms, an ominous finger-picking pattern meets up with a thumping, mid-tempo beat, creating a backbone for a rather wordy song that is once again led by Allie. I’m enchanted by her voice as always, even if I can’t completely keep up with its tongue-twister of a chorus. This is definitely one of the album’s darker songs, again breaking tradition by bringing in the electric guitar, but I like that they manage this without falling prey to the default “just strum the electric like you would an acoustic” mode that less imaginative folk/rock acts tend to fall into. Allie’s strong assertion that “I like to share my soul with many, I don’t save it just for one” punctuates the end of the chorus here, as if to defy someone who wishes to own or control her. It’s interesting that so many songs near the end of this EP have focused almost solely on her as the lead vocalist – not that I mind at all, because she’s more than capable (and it makes sense if these songs were meant to be used in her show), but I do hope the group manages to find a balance between the guys and the girls if they ever release a full-length album, . The only real complaint I can make about this one is that it rambles its way to the finish line a bit too soon – the last three tracks on this EP are all under three minutes long, so it runs out of steam just as I was getting into it.
8. Don’t Stay Low
At barely over two minutes long, this simple song with nothing more than Adam’s acoustic guitar and Allie’s voice feels like more of a demo than a full-fledged song, but much like some of Sara Watkins’ shorter, cutesier songs (especially “Anthony”), there’s a simple charm to this one that makes it a fitting finale. the swiftly moving lyrics actually allow her to say quite a bit her, as she encourages someone to get up out of their funk and get on with their lives instead of berating themselves for whatever mistakes they made in the past: “Oh, leave your mistake in the doorway/Give us a sign that you’ve seen what you’ve done/And look for the sun/And lift up your head/Don’t say low, don’t stay low/No, just pick yourself up and go on.” I could perhaps do with a bit of playful instrumentation to give this song some sort of a bridge or a coda to extend it past interlude length, but it once again demonstrates that Allie is the kind of vocalist who could sing the contents of the bank receipts in my wallet, and I’d probably still find it captivating.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
What Money Paid For $1.75
Follow Your Heart $1.25
Stepping Stone $1.75
Bird in Another Tree $1.25
In the Grey $1.75
My Words $.50
Sail On $1.25
Don’t Stay Low $.50
Allie Gonino: Vocals, fiddle, mandolin
Adam Brooks: Vocals, guitars
Andy Fischer-Price: Vocals, bass, ukulele
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: