Enlisting in The String Contingent

Miri Jassy

[December 2011.]

THE STRING CONTINGENT: The String Contingent (2010). Self-released; order from the band’s website (http://www.thestringcontingent.com/). Downloads available from CDBaby (http://www.cdbaby.com/).

Australian folk band The String Contingent is on the rise and on the verge of releasing a second album. If the next installment is as exciting as their self-titled first offering, music lovers can be assured of a powerful new presence on the acoustic scene.

The ancient notion of music’s influence over the elements survives in ceremonies like the rain dance. Can music really whip up a storm or summon rain from the clouds? During a recent live gig, The String Contingent’s appealing blend of Celtic-inspired chamber folk music had this very unusual power over the weather. The outdoor setting and heady wine helped, but The String Contingent seemed to conjure then scatter storm clouds and command clear skies.

Chris Stone on violin, Graham McLeod on guitar and Holly Downes on double bass make up The String Contingent, and the trio’s original compositions are vibrant, powerfully reminiscent of Aussie folk troupe My Friend the Chocolate Cake, though sans vocals. So inspiring is the music, that a friend of mine, upon hearing the trio on late night public radio, was seized with excitement and travelled south to hear The String Contingent play in a distant town. Captivated, she booked them on the spot for her housewarming party. The music delivered the warming effect required, and more.

The trio played some memorable songs which feature on The String Contingent. “King Offa” inducts the listener to the Contingent’s signature sound: energetic, pacey and celtatonic — those semi-tones veering west of pentatonic, the kind emitted by Irish bagpipes or belted out in ancient alehouse anthems. The melody’s charm was enhanced by the fiddler’s stage banter, a tale of sauntering along the cliff-tops of Wales in the footsteps of legendary King Offa. Such tales are indicative of this group’s inspiration, but their influences are not only those preserved in peat bog or unearthed from shattering stone ruins. The String Contingent’s sound is syncopated, earthy and not unsexy! It sounds about as modern as a string trio can get without reducing its repertoire to tacky heavy metal covers as so many do in hopes of attracting diverse (read: young) crowds.

“Dialogic” confirms the trio’s passion for a meaningful blend of familiar and strange, as Downes’ double bass and Stone’s violin unite in the earnest rhythms of an urban hymn. Slow and insistent, the guitar upholds a sharp-edged rhythm in this song, sandwiched between the double bass’s moody sighs and the fiddle’s vocal bowing as the two explore a sensuous, dark palette before emerging into a bright, light-filled final minute.

Named for a Melbourne singer’s unpredictable dancing style, “Lucie’s Boogie” features charming violin licks and brisk moments that ease into the swaying prettiness of the main refrain. It’s a showcase for Chris Stone’s reliable yet playful violin.

The String Contingent’s compositional ambition is apparent in “Good Grief.” This ironically titled piece initiates a legato melody both mature and plaintive. Guitar and double bass open with a tick-tock rhythm suggestive of time the healer, in a song rich in ideas, maintaining a simple melody. This song is a favourite, a statement of The String Contingent’s sound which skirts the hazardous steppes of sentimentality, only to back away into truly catchy hooks that resolve in the trio’s collective harmony and groove.

Another piece boasting a 21st century mode with rustic roots is “Ictus,” a piece initiated by pizzicato violin. Downes’ double bass is mobilised somewhat jerkily in the middle before resolving into a whirling climax of violin that stops short of screeching in what is really a passionate bit of risk-taking. Fuelled by the sum of its parts, the song is stunning.

More catchy still is the walk up and down the scales of memory lane in “Farewell to Aga.” A minor key melody which curls out and back on itself, it’s an undeniably emotional ode to a friend of the Trio, a Scottish cafe-owner who no doubt kept the wandering minstrels well fed and watered during their overseas tours.

The pace picks up again with “Ikadoo Blues,” an upbeat and unashamedly shiny song with a sort of Indigo-Girls style rock strumming intro. You might wonder about The String Contingent’s exciting bunch of talent and energy by the time you reach this song but you certainly won’t get the blues, Ikadoo or otherwise.

“Blue Mando” is the album’s stately conclusion. A mix of arpeggio patterns and smart rhythms makes for another catchy yet powerful piece. The melody hovers between violin and double bass, shared and exchanged, piloted by a demure guitar.

Playing at folk festivals, schools and private venues, there is growing support base for The String Contingent to enlist more fans. With their vibrant sound and sublime compositions — not to mention their passionate, live delivery — The String Contingent is bound for bigger audiences. Whether they will find these audiences in more commercial venues remains to be seen, but if anyone can mobilise a new generation of devoted folk followers, it’s The String Contingent.

 

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