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Many fans have been aware for some time that Ken and Brad Kolodner were planning to release a second Traditional album, but they could not have anticipated that a second album could possibly surpass their previous collaboration, "Otter Creek." That first album was exceptional and had the distinction of being one of the most highly regarded and played instrumental folk albums during the year following its release. "Skipping Rocks," however, actually exceeds their first effort.
The musicianship on this album is absolutely incredible. Ken Kolodner is one of the finest, most able, and diverse hammered dulcimer players anywhere. There are about four or five other talented players who are really outstanding also, but in many ways his work surpasses theirs. His arrangements are always unusual and truly outstanding, his technique is precise and unmistakable in its sound, and he knows how to use a vastly underutilized and neglected acoustic instrument -- the hammered dulcimer -- to complement rather than detract from Old Time Traditional Music. Ken's distinct hammered dulcimer rhythms on tracks such as “The Orchard” and "Billy In the Lowground" (reminiscent of the same rhythms used with "Otter Creek" on the Kolodners' first album) authoritatively confirm the driving elements of many of their tunes. What many hammered dulcimer fans don't realize, however, is just how good his Old Time fiddle playing is (fiddle was and is his first instrument, well before hammered dulcimer). Admittedly, there are many more excellent fiddlers than hammered dulcimer players around, but Ken's Old Time fiddling is exceptional in that he is perhaps the best -- the absolute best – when it comes to emphasizing and maintaining that strong accent on a tune’s back/offbeat; one can always recognize his fiddle playing because of that. On this new album, his hammered dulcimer versatility is best revealed on the tunes "John Brown's March" and "Grub Springs," which are different versions than listeners have ever before heard; the tunes contain luscious arrangements and playing. And his (and Brad’s!) fiddling on "Lost Indian" is so powerful that even a knowledgeable Old Time Music listener can became confused and lose track of whether there really is any difference between "Lost Indian" and "Cherokee Shuffle," or whether it even matters!
Ken’s son Brad Kolodner is simply one of the best of the new generation of Old Time melodic Clawhammer banjo players. Recently he was selected as a winner in a national Clawhammer competition -- that featured 60 or 70 other capable players -- with his rendition of the tune "Boatman," a tune that's also featured on this new album, along with his Dad Ken's fiddle playing on the tune. But it is with his original compositions, such as "Skipping Rocks," that he most shines. Like many outstanding Old Time and Traditional musicians, he realizes full well that often it is that one simple, characteristic feature within a composed tune that differentiates it from all the others (such as an unusual measure or standout note in a given crooked Old Time tune]. Brad cleverly incorporates that distinctive feature into his composition "Skipping Rocks," where it's that unusual sixth-minor chord moving down to a five-chord that really makes the tune. Also, his Clawhammer technique is always clean on every tune. His growing up in such a musical household as well as his spending his college years around a number of exemplary Ithaca, NY, Old Time musicians -- as well as his own talent -- had to ensure that he would become an outstanding Clawhammer banjo and fiddle player (yes, he plays outstanding fiddle on the album too). With this second album, Brad sings as well on "Down On My Knees" (again with Ken's solid fiddle backup) and performs the best vocal rendition of "Red Rocking Chair" that many listeners will have ever heard; it's his quiet, lamenting version that makes it the genuinely sad song that it is on this album.
To have a “backup guitar player” of the caliber of Robin Bullock [of his own solo instrumental as well as Helicon fame] helping out adds to this album's uniqueness. His use of what experienced guitar players will recognize by sound to be Drop D tuning on "Lost Indian" really adds a powerful element to the tune and again helps make the version memorable. Bullock’s chord progressions and voicings provide an additional and welcome modern dimension to the Kolodners’ Old (and new) Time Traditional sound. Musician Alex Lacquement’s Traditional and Bowed Bass contributions are outstanding as well, as is the supporting work of background vocalist Kagey Parrish (of the Honey Dewdrops) and Scottish Fiddling Champion Elke Baker.
In addition to a number of “new Old Time” banjo and dulcimer compositions, such as the album title track, fans of Old Time music will enjoy this album for the renditions of a number of great Traditional tunes and songs, including the driving, forceful (and "Otter Creek-like and sounding") "Billy In the Lowground," "Falls of Richmond," "Reuben's Train," and a medley containing “Tombigbee Waltz.” Listeners will also appreciate the outstanding technical qualities of the recording itself and the capturing of a crispness of sound that even makes Brad Kolodner’s banjo “clucks” audible.
All in all, this is one of the best "Old and New" Traditional Appalachian albums released since "Otter Creek" caught the ear of listeners just over three years ago. And it still will touch music fans everywhere that a father and son not only can make music that sounds so good, but that they so obviously enjoy making such great music with each other and their music friends.
Overall Rating: 10
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