Black Prairie's debut is based in many of the traditions of old time string band music, but updates and expands those conventions into something totally new. The project is comprised of three members of the popular chamber rock group, The Decemberists. Guitarist Chris Funk founded the group and plays Dobro. He also recruited Decemberists bassist Nate Query and accordion player Jenny Conlee to play along with former Bearfoot member Annalisa Tornfelt on fiddle and Doloreon's Jon Neufeld on guitar. Most of the album is instrumental, and many of the tunes take on a dark and gothic feel, weaving elements of bluegrass, jazz, folk, Klezmer and even classical compositions into the sound.
One of the few vocal tracks is the traditional folk tune, Red Rocking Chair. Black Prairie turns it into a moody and atmospheric dirge with Tornfelt's breathy lead vocals adding an eerily beautiful layer. The only other traditional tune, Blackest Crow, is airy and ethereal with the vocals taking on a dream like quality. By contrast, it is two original tunes, Back Alley and Homemade Lemonade, that come the closest to a traditional string band sound with classic acoustic guitar runs and flying fiddles. They almost seem misplaced because of it.
Pure traditionalists might be a bit put off by this record. Ditto that for Decemberists fans, who will surely miss Colin Meloy's theatrical lyrical style. Fans who appreciate musicians who aren't afraid to break out from their own comfort zones, however, might just feast on this one.