A group comprised of four music veterans, Painted Mandolin is the brainchild of singer, and mandolin, fiddle, and hand and mouth percussionist Joe Craven, a onetime member of the Garcia/Grisman Band whose additional credits include work with Stephane Grappelli and the late David Lindley. The other players include Larry Graff, the band’s songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist; guitarist, banjotar player, and singer Matt Hartle; and bassist Dan Robbins. Various guests also take part in the proceedings — including Terry Shield on occasional bass, Sarah Larkin, Rita Hocking, Pico, and Sarah Ryan on backing vocals, and Cindy Bacon contributing a gong.
Fortunately, the group’s new album, Sweet Rain, on Blender Lock Art records, lives up to all the craft and credence implied in those credentials. Tender and tangled all at the same time, the song Sweet Rain spotlights the band’s precise picking, some delicate fiddle plucking, and an emphatic bass line, all of intertwined within a calming caressing instrumental tapestry.
That said, After the Fire takes matters a bit out of the box, courtesy of a stuttered rhythm, and a melody that’s both subtle and sprawling all at the same time. It’s an approach that’s somewhat akin to the sound of abstract jazz, courtesy in large part to its extended instrumental interlude. Love In A Rose, Northern California Banjo Bound, and Shine On come across as more or less bare-bone entries, a mesh of singing and strings in a decidedly unobtrusive way. Like most of the album, these songs require a closer listen to fully appreciate their supple sensibilities.
Mather and Bird Dreams on the other hand, opt for a more affable and upbeat sound, while also bowing to a more traditional bluegrass approach in both the tone and treatment. The extended instrumental break and random chatter found in the former make it sound as if the aim was to evoke a more adventurous and seemingly spontaneous affair.
Nevertheless, Painted Mandolin boasts a rather fragile finesse, one that finds space between the notes and a single instrument dominating the proceedings at any given time. Granted, this Sweet Rain may require repeated listens, but its illumination of color and texture make it well worth any additional encounter.