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Review: Ken Perlman, Frails & Frolics

Listening to Ken Perlman fly through a set of dance tunes provides a masterclass on the melodic possibilities not often explored on the five-string banjo. Perlman is, of course, a pioneer in melodic clawhammer banjo playing. He has released dozens of albums and two classic instructional books. His latest album, Frails & Frolics, is a collection of fiddle tunes from Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton and elsewhere.

The album is Perlman’s first solo album since 2001, and his first devoted solely to the banjo. The 17 tracks present 46 tunes, mostly arranged as medleys or “sets.” The tunes showcase Perlman’s immaculate playing style. It’s truly a marvel how he can manage to sound all notes of a fiddle. His triplets and trills are masterful. The packaging isn’t flashy, but a simple eight-page booklet gives in-depth background about each tune and its source, as well as notes on Perlman’s arrangements. It’s clear from the liner notes that Perlman has done extensive research into the origins of this music.

The sheer number of tunes can be a bit dizzying, as they start to blend together at times. The presentation of three or more tunes per track, while traditional to the genre, compounds this concern by making it difficult to parse which tune is which. Perhaps that is why the three standalone tracks stand out from the others. However, the music itself is never anything but enjoyable.

“Dallas Rag” is a particular gem. One of the handful of old-time tunes on the album, Perlman’s source is a contemporary stringband called the Todalo Shakers. However the tune dates back to at least 1927, when it was recorded by the Dallas String Band and later popularized by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Perlman plays the tune in Double C, but includes a variation in the Key of F, the tune’s typical setting. The tune seems like it should be the soundtrack to a raucous scene in a silent movie.

Perlman is accompanied by Jim Prendergast on guitar and Janine Randall on piano on various tracks. Not to diminish Prendergast’s solid guitar work, but there is something delightful in the interplay between Perlman’s banjo and Randall’s piano in this particular style of music. The banjo-piano duets are playful and airy, and these tracks seem to better illustrate that these are tunes for dancing. The rollicking set of “Carlton County Breakdown / Miller’s Reel / Trip to Windsor” (Track 9) is a particularly good example.

As noted on Perlman’s website, Frails & Frolics represents perhaps the first time most of these tunes have been “successfully played” on five-string banjo, citing key changes, time signatures and difficult noting. The album is also likely the first appearance for some tunes on a “commercial” recording.

The album is nicely sequenced, varying tempos to provide, dare I say, a frolicking aural experience. The sound mix on the first track gets a little muddled at times, which is a bit off-putting to start the album, but otherwise the recording is fairly crisp.

Overall, Frails & Frolics is a pleasing romp through the Canadian Maritimes. Perlman’s tune selection and execution are impeccable. While the almost four dozen tunes tend to run together after a while, each listen seems to illicit new surprises. Perlman’s masterful banjo picking never ceases to amaze.

Track listing:
  1. Londonderry Hornpipe / Jenny Dang the Weaver / Sleepy Maggie
  2. Dr. Keith Strathspey / Miss Barker’s Hornpipe / Carney’s Canter
  3. Omar Cheverie’s Jig / Fig for a Kiss / Hector MacDonald’s Jig
  4. Pride of the Ball / MacKinnon’s Rant / Lasses of Glenalladale / St. Kilda Wedding
  5. Bonniest Lass in A’ the World / Emil Gaudet’s Reel / Chetticamp Reel
  6. Dallas Rag
  7. North Side of the Grampians / Jack Webster’s Reel / Souris Breakwater
  8. Rose of Tennessee / Don’t Be Teasing / Whiskey Jig
  9. Carlton County Breakdown / Miller’s Reel / Trip to Windsor
  10. Where the North River Flows
  11. The Marchioness of Tullibardine / Dinky’s Reel / Little Donald in the Pigpen
  12. Hector’s New Dance Hall / Hector’s Fancy / Durang’s Hornpipe
  13. Fred Wilson’s Hornpipe / High Level Hornpipe
  14. Ottawa Valley Reel / Lad O’beirne’s / Marie à Pierre
  15. The Bonny Lea Rig / Shores of Loughgowna / Teviot Bridge
  16. Tennessee Mountain Fox Chase
  17. George V’s Army / Mr. Murray Strathspey / The Marquis of Huntley / Prince Edward Island Wedding Reel
CDs and digital downloads available through www.kenperlman.com for $15 or www.cdbaby.com for $14.97 (CD) or $9.99 (digital).

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