The New Line • Can't Hold the Wheel
The chiming sound of the Zimbabwean thumb piano or mbira briefly entered the mainstream in the 1980s when Thomas Mapfumo and the Bhundu Boys enjoyed five minutes of pop fame, but the instrument has never found the wider currency of the sitar or kora. Vermont's Brendan Taaffe and band may change that with an enticing mix of Appalchian folk and Afro-pop as mbira and banjo cast old-time roots ballads such as 'Goodnight Irene' and 'Danville Girl' in a beguiling new light. Stefan Amidon (younger brother of Sam) adds percussion and vocals and the results are as magical as if Justin Vernon had invited Toumani Diabaté to his Wisconsin cabin.
— Nigel Williamson
From Songlines. 4 out of 5 stars
This is a fine collection of traditional-styled American tunes performed with great respect by The New Line. The group produce three-part vocal harmonies, accompanied by the clawhammer banjo of Adam hurt, electric guitar, drums, trumpet, and notably the mbira (thumb piano) of group leader Brendan Taaffe. Taaffe has studied Shona mbira music in Zimbabwe and is clearly an accomplished player. However the presence of an African thumb piano on this album is by no means invasive or remotely alien to the general sense of an Appalachian old-time session. The rippling mbira notes are rendered in a beautifully restrained manner—almost like wind chimes hanging on a porch, blown by a gentle breeze.
As well as playing mbira, Taaffe sings the lead vocals and has a very pleasing tenor voice. However it is the overall ensemble re-imagination of familiar tunes that makes this album so unassumingly charming. Their interpretation of Bob Dylan's 'Nobody 'Cept You' and the Doc Watson chestnut 'Little Sadie' are highlight, as is John Prine's fabulous 'Speed of the Sound of Loneliness', which sounds as good as the original. There isn't a faltering moment throughout this album and the closing version of Leadbelly's 'Goodnight Irene' sounds fresh and quite moving with its tinkling mbira backing.
— Martin Sinnock
From Seven Days
Though it's sometimes a risky proposition, the commingling of disparate musical cultures can often produce enlightening results. In the best cases, such as Abigail Washburn's marriage of Appalachian and Chinese music traditions with the Sparrow Quartet or, more famously, Paul Simon's landmark album Graceland, a savvy composer can highlight complementary qualities in far-flung styles that inspire listeners to view each with a new perspective. Brattleboro's Brendan Taaffe is one such songwriter. His new record with his band the New Line, Can't Hold the Wheel, is an absorbing mixture of American and African musical styles, presented through a collection of reimagined Americana classics. Or, as Taaffe puts it on his bandcamp page, "music from the intimate borderlands of indie folk and Afropop." Two instruments with symbiotic tones are found throughout the recording and forge the album's multicultural sonic identity. The first is the mbira, a traditional African thumb piano with origins in Zimbabwe — where Taaffe recently traveled to study with masters of the instrument. The second is likely more familiar to Western audiences: the banjo.
Taaffe enlisted North Carolina-based banjo virtuoso Adam Hurt, who plays the steel-string banjo common to American roots music as well as a version of that instrument's West African ancestor, the gourd banjo. Together, the banjos and mbira both complement and contrast with each other. The former's languid, piercing ripple weaves around the rounded tones of the latter, creating a complex and delicate tapestry that breathes new life into 12 timeworn favorites.
Joining Taaffe and Hurt on songs such as Dock Boggs' "Danville Girl," Dylan's "Nobody 'Cept You" John Prine's "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness," along with a handful of traditional tunes, is a cast of top-notch talent. Ace engineer Colin McCaffrey recorded and produced the record, chipping in on electric guitar and bass. Stefan Amidon added percussion and vocals and contributes to the record's often dreamy aesthetic. His brother is Brattleboro's Sam Amidon, a singer known for his own ethereal manipulations of American folk music. Rounding out the group are trumpeter Mike Olson and vocalist Heather Masse, of Joy Kills Sorrow and the Wailin' Jennys renown.
The result is a stark, stirring and surprisingly accessible work that, like its spiritual cousin and probable inspiration Graceland, honors the musical heritages of the disparate cultures from which it was born.
— Dan Bolles
Can't Hold The Wheel sees The New Line sticking to well-worn tracks in their repertoire choices, with old-time favourites including Little Sadie, Danville Girl, The Old Churchyard, and Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still, and a smattering of more recent singer-songwriter fare like Bob Dylan's Nobody ‘Cept You and John Prine's Speed of the Sound of Loneliness. What sets this album a good distance apart from the plethora of releases with similar track-listings is the originality of the arrangements and the quality of the performances.
Frontman Brendan Taaffe's mbira playing is something of a revelation (he's studied traditional Shona technique in Zimbabwe) and his interplay with the gourd banjo of North Carolina clawhammer champion Adam Hurt is a joyous groove throughout. Guitarist Colin McCaffrey and drummer Stefan Amidon are subtle, sensitive players and the guest contributions by trumpeter Mike Olson and singer Heather Masse are spot on.
This is a beautifully sung and played record, as appealing for its modest, intimate warmth as Seznec's is for its ambitious, eclectic brilliance.
— Steve Hunt
From Louder Than War, 8/10
The New Line are led by master mbira instrumentalist Brendan Taaffe who has taken the bold step of bringing together the cultures of Appalachia and Africa.
It's an ambitious reworking of a collection of songs which range from the sounds of familiar mainstream material—not a thousand miles away from Paul Simon's ‘Graceland'—to the more remote areas of indie folk and afro-pop. Accompanied in the main by Adam Hurt on gourd banjo and steel strung banjo it's quite a peaceful and relaxing set with the prevailing percussive plucking sound of Taaffe's mbira standing out through each track. Having said that, the interplay between Taaffe and Hurt, the partnership arising from one of those chance meetings at a break in a gig, is quite hypnotic and absorbing whilst at the same time quite sparse and uncluttered, allowing the material to breath.
The occasional contribution on guitar comes from top Vermont session player Colin McCaffrey and some harmony vocal from well-known American folk singer Heather Masse, the latter most notably on 'Red Rocking Chair'; it's mountain banjo picking contrasting with her parts on the African musical melody of 'Fall On My Knees'. Dylan's ‘Planet Waves' outtake 'Nobody ‘Cept You' also gets the mbira/banjo treatment as does the old chestnut 'Goodnight Irene' which closes out the album amidst a ripple of distant picking and hushed harmonies.
It brings full circle a record which stands as a genteel variation cum minor diversion of breathing new life into the tradition from which they draw.
— Michael Ainscoe
From Liverpool Sound and Vision
Not everything in life needs to be shouted, and not everything needs the roar. For The New Line, led by Brendan Taaffe, the whisper of ghosts is far more effective in re-imagining of old ballads that hang in the hills of the Appalachian mountains. This is music from the Earth, played as if the stars had joined forces to make a bright light appear. Can’t Hold The Wheel is an embarrassment of riches, a musical journey you might not have thought to take but that somehow becomes one of the most memorable moments you will live through. The greatest moment is when you realise that all the noise outside your window has been reduced to a sigh.
— Ian Hall
Taking traditional music somewhere rather special: The magic opens with Train on the Island and instantly you’re riveted by this sound. Move from there to anywhere on Can't Hold the Wheel and the experience just gets better. The soft ballad Danville Girl acquires a spellbinding edge, as does the soft emotive expression of Dylan's Nobody 'Cept You—just exquisite. With this album Brendan Taaffe and The New Line have combined the webs and roots of tradition with fesh inventiveness and innovation to a level that will take some effort to surpass.
© Brendan Taaffe, 2014. All Rights Reserved.