The world-renowned Kronos Quartet have soundtracked movies like Requiem for a Dream and Heat, developed the Under 30 Project to support young composers and worked in more genres and with more famous collaborators than most groups of any sort ever will. Their latest release contains a batch of traditional songs with label mates Sam Amidon, Olivia Chaney, Rhiannon Giddens and Natalie Merchant.
The Quartet's versatility can be seen in the contrast between the first two songs. The quartet's little swells and flourishes help add drama to Amidon's melancholic deadpan delivery on "Oh Where," while their slow-burning humming subtly underpins Chaney's expressive acrobatics on "Rambling Boys of Pleasure." Yet, neither arrangement really overtakes the song or the vocal performance; these musicians play with expert sensitivity and patience. One particularly nice moment is the rapidly bowed part for the line "one thousand young butterflies darkened the sun," in the finale of the Giddens-led "Factory Girl."
"Last Kind Words" perks things up with a playful and zesty take on Geeshie Wiley's blues classic (which also appeared on Giddens' solo debut). The same goes for the odd rhythms (possibly 21/8 time?) tapped out on the bodies of their instruments for "Montagne, Que Tu Es Haute" led by Chaney. Another Giddens-led number, "Lullaby," is definitely a highlight of the album, with sweet pizzicato parts and coy counter-melodies.
If there's one general criticism to be made here it could be that the album lingers a bit too much in a dark and dramatic mood (especially in the first four songs), but that's less an outright flaw and more a desire for more of the playfulness that appears in the second half of the record. (Nonesuch)