What might have happened had The B-52's pursued bluegrass rather than sassy, snappy new wave?
Ponder that question, and then head over to the webpage of Saskatchewan's In With the Old for the answer.
Their press material states that they are from Northern Saskatchewan, accurate only if you've never been to Northern Saskatchewan. No, they are from the south-central region of my third favourite province, but regional descriptors do not much matter when you produce as varied and compelling hybrid of roots music as this youthful trio do.
Members of In With The Old appear to be in their early twenties, but I am at the age when everyone between 17 and 34 appears to be in their early twenties, so take that with a grain. Safe to say, these are kids, ones with not just chops but some experience. They appear to be a playful bunch-from their outlandish thrift shop threads and low-key (but splendid) video effort to their lighthearted and strangely attractive album packaging-but "My Mother's Couch" is no slap-dash, goofy caricature.
Entirely delightful, "My Mother's Couch" is their second album, and they have allowed their music to take them to some notable places including Merlefest and an IBMA showcase in 2016, as well as Folk Alliance this winter. Even by the most generous definition, In With the Way isn't a bluegrass band. No, they are a modern acoustic-folk outfit that bleeds across genre, including bluegrass, sounding like no one but themselves in the same way Crooked Still and Welch/Rawlings (respectively) did before every fourth group attempted to emulate them.
In With the Old build themselves around the family-close vocal harmonies of Ellen Froese-Kooijenga (guitar, harmonica, mandolin) and Kasia Thorlakson (mandolin, guitar, banjo.) The two pair beautifully, crafting songs tragic ("Leave Here Alone") and free-spirited ("My Mother's Couch") with equal artfulness. To provide context, they include a handful of covers (a well-executed "I Only Exist" and the bluesy "Mistreated Mama," among them) but the group's original material is their strength.
Written by both Froese-Kooijenga and Thorlakson, In With the Old's songs are inventive, completely original, and possess a foundation of character allowing them to be distinguishable within the crowded contemporary folk and Americana world available at the click of a button. The title track opens with a full minute of (what sounds like) muted banjo and maybe mandolin and guitar that establishes a most inventive and playful groove before turning into a full-on acoustic rave-up that kicks off with the lyrics, "My mother's couch was a place she liked to sit, when the cats came in and took her on a trip." I don't know what it means, but its psychedelic-folkgrass vibe is one of the finest things I've heard since the calendar changed.
Bassist Jaxon Lalonde (banjo, too) lends vocal harmony depth to most songs, and it is his Fred Schneider-like exclamations that brought Athens, GA's best ever band to mind (yeah, I'm including R.E.M. in that, dammit.)
"Patriot," a Froese-Kooikenga number, captures painful, self-imposed solitude while Thorlakson's "One Way Ticket" assumes a more aggressive stance to the dissolution of a relationship. The latter song allows for Lalonde to have vocal prominence on the chorus, as does "Little Sally." "Adeline" takes off where the Be Good Tanyas finished, as an apt comparison point as any-likely better than bluegrass B-52's.
Coming late in the set, "Tell Me How" may be In With the Old's most complete song: an intriguing and lyrical premise, a stunning vocal performance from Froese-Kooijenga that reminds one a bit of Catherine MacLellan, and a gentle opening that flows seamlessly into a memorable fiery banjo-guitar-mandolin arrangement.
In With the Old are a unique folk group. With two-strong songwriters and lead vocalists and a dynamic instrumental approach to old-time sounds, this Saskatoon-based trio has captured my imagination with "My Mother's Couch." Give it a listen-you may be surprised at how quickly their music weaves itself into your head. A good one, then.