Living in the ‘Right Now’: Twisted Pine finds rhythm in new album

  • Twisted Pine’s new album, “Right Now,” offers some bluegrass roots but brings pop, jazz, funk and more into the mix.

  • Twisted Pine includes, from left, Anh Phung, Kathleen Parks, Chris Sartori and Dan Bui. The Boston-based band has made regular visits to the Valley in the last several years.  Photo by Joanna Chattman

  • Folk-blues guitarist and singer-songwriter Chris Smither’s new album, “More Fron the Levee,” includes re-recorded versions of some of his most notable songs.

Staff Writer
Published: 9/14/2020 1:30:42 PM

The nucleus of Twisted Pine formed several years ago in Boston, when fiddler Kathleen Parks and mandolin player Dan Bui met at Berklee College of Music. But what started as a somewhat more traditional bluegrass band has morphed over the years into an eclectic group that embraces jazz, pop, funk, Latin rhythms and more.

Twisted Pine has brought all those varied influences to the fore on its newest album, “Right Now,” on Northampton’s Signature Sounds label. The quartet of Parks, Bui, bassist Chris Sartori and flutist Anh Phung has earned comparisons to “newgrass” bands such as Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek that have redrawn the boundaries of traditional bluegrass. But with “Right Now,” Twisted Pine also seems to be taking a page from the playful, grooving sound of Lake Street Dive.

The 10-track CD includes eight original songs, four by Parks and four others co-written and arranged by Parks and other band members. There are also two unique covers: a funked-up version of “Well, You Can Do It Without Me” by Father John Misty and “Come Along Jody,” a bluegrass standard on which the band shows off its hoedown chops, with Bui contributing a stellar solo on mandolin and Parks and Phung offering point-counterpoint on fiddle and flute.

“Right Now” is the second full album (and third overall record) by the band, and it’s the first without guitarist and singer-songwriter Rachel Sumner, one of Twisted Pine’s co-founders; she left last year to start a solo career. The new CD is the first to feature Phung, who brings a wide musical background — classical, jazz, rock and R&B — to the band.

What stands out, song after song, is the group’s outstanding sense of rhythm. Bui and Sartori — the latter is a graduate of the jazz program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst — lock down the bottom of every track, sometimes with spare instrumentation and sometimes with more prominent lines. When Parks and Phung add their parts, the interplay is taut and crisp without ever being flashy. The freshness comes from all the members playing traditional instruments in unusual ways.

Parks, the band’s lead singer, has a breathy vocal style that brings another dimension to the music; she’s been influenced by pop and jazz singers from the 1960s and 1970s, among others (the group recorded a great cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” two years ago).

One of the best showcases for Parks on “Right Now” is her pop-flavored “Don’t Come Over Tonight,” which begins at a slow pace with a short, descending riff by Sartori and then the singer’s vocal, aimed at an overbearing lover who’s not giving her enough space: “Don’t come over tonight/ I would like to be alone/ And I would like to hear my thoughts without you telling me/ just what I am thinking.”

Like a number of other songs on the album, “Don’t Come Over Tonight” moves through some tricky rhythm and time-signature changes, with freeform, jazzy solos by Phung and Parks in the middle, plus a bit of scat singing by Parks. The tune races to the end with a stepped-up beat, all restraints seemingly removed as Parks sings “I want to be myself around myself with you calling me … crazy.”  

The album’s title song offers more toe-tapping pop flavor, with lyrics that describe an awkward encounter between the singer and her ex at a party. Parks’ more full-throated vocals here are backed by tight harmonies by the band, and the singer also adds a crisp, melodic solo on her fiddle.

“Amadeus Party” is a somewhat jazzy instrumental with distinctive bass lines, while the slower ballad “Dreamaway,” which starts with just Bui’s slowly plucked mandolin, features a whistled solo and a hint of country flavor; the lyrics speak to the importance of rolling with life’s punches and taking things day to day.

In fact, Parks, in an accompanying press release, says the songs on the new album reflect the ups and downs of life on the road for a touring band, from meeting new people and being exposed to different sounds to “couch crashing, face masks ... zero accommodations, homesickness … ”

Lynne Bertrand, part of Signature Sounds’ management team, also notes that Twisted Pines’ tour this summer to celebrate “Right Now” was wiped out by the pandemic and that the recording sessions themselves had to be finished after COVID-19 came on the scene. Given all that, the new album has taken on added meaning, she writes, especially concerning the vital role music plays in connecting people emotionally.

“This album became a cross-section of our team’s experience of this time, a mix of boldness and anxiety, sober advice and high wit, an expression of love for the open road, for festivals, for virtuosity, for each other, for Right Now,” Bertrand writes.

Also from Signature Sounds 

Some new takes on older songs by veteran singer-songwriter and guitarist Chris Smither of Amherst are featured on “More From the Levee,” due out Oct. 2. The CD offers a new Smither tune, “What I Do,” and nine older songs that he originally re-recorded in 2014 in New Orleans with longtime producer Dave Goodrich.

Most of the songs recorded at those sessions appeared on Smither’s 2014 double album “Still on the Levee,” but according to Signature Sounds, numerous other tunes from the productive studio time, which included the backing of several other musicians, were not released, including a particular fan favorite, “Drive You Home Again.”

Smither, originally from New Orleans, includes as well on the album a new version of one of his earliest love songs, “Lonely Time,” which appeared on his first record, “I’m a Stranger Too!” in 1970.

Smither recently played a few small outdoor shows, including one at Black Birch Wineyard in Hatfield that was part of a short late-summer acoustic concert series Signature Sounds has produced at the venue. “It’s great to be in person playing to everyone,” he wrote on Facebook on Sept. 8. “Keep wearing your masks.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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