Two decades ago, Rani Arbo was fronting New England-based Salamander Crossing, a band that at the time was among the more progressive on the bluegrass circuit due in no small part to her spirited, unrestrained vocals, innovative and stylish fiddling, and provocative songwriting. After that band broke up at the turn of the century, she moved on to form daisy mayhem, and while there are still lingering hints of bluegrass on this latest release (their sixth, all on Signature Sounds), the dozen tracks here serve as a showcase for just how far afield from the more formulaic aspects of bluegrass her talents have taken her. It's no stretch to credit Arbo as one of the pioneers in the emergence of "Americana" as a distinct (if somewhat difficult to define) genre.
Importantly, part of her success lies in the fact that she gives her band plenty of room to contribute in their own distinctive ways. Guitarist Anand Nayak, for example, is a moody, electric presence throughout, especially on lap steel for a few tracks. Percussionist Scott Kessel (Arbo's husband) is adept at providing the variety of rhythms required by the eclectic and diverse arrangements (no two songs have quite the same texture and feel, and that's typically a good indication of a well thought out and produced album). Though he plays bass on most tracks, Andrew Kinsey (also a Salamander Crossing alum) provides the banjo touches when needed. Arbo also gives each of them a shot at a lead vocal here and there, and they all carry it off well - though one minor criticism would be to mention that the liner notes don't clearly indicate who's singing on which cut.
It's Arbo's voice, however, that is the strongest element throughout. It's a voice that doesn't try to dazzle with rafter-shaking power or multi-octave dynamism, but she never fails to leave the impression that she just can't help letting her feelings out with every song, and is having a good time doing it. By the band's own description, "Violets Are Blue" is an album of "love songs," but even a casual listening makes clear that they're looking at love from a lot of different angles - the joy of soaking in the world around you in Arbo's "Heart Of The World"; the esoteric (and almost erotic) imagery in their cover of the Blood Oranges' "Down By The Water"; the heartache of watching hometown New Orleans washing away in May Erlewine's "I Love This City" (with Erlewine joining in); and, for good measure, the '50s-era country sentimentality of Fred Rose's "I'm Satisfied With You," written for Hank Williams.
There's simply no one label or category to describe what Arbo and her band mates do, and "Americana" is probably as close as it gets. They just keep on doing it, and it keeps working.