Kevin Breit & The Upper York Mandolin Orchestra - Field Recording

A quirky but endlessly fascinating collection
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Guitarist extraordinaire Kevin Breit has a reputation for the quirky and cerebral. As an in-demand session player he's recorded with the likes of Norah Jones, Roseanne Cash, and k. d. lang. As a member of various groups of his own (Sisters Euclid, Folk Alarm) he's got well over a dozen recordings under his belt, as well as three solo outings under his own name.

In short, Breit is widely regarded as a guitarist's guitarist, the kind who can utterly dazzle and confound while making it all seem effortless. So his latest project comes as that much more of a surprise. Working with the Upper York Mandolin Orchestra, there's nary a note of guitar to be found on Field Recording. What is here, though, is a masterful and often stunningly beautiful collection of folky originals, anchored by Breit's earthy, gruff vocals

One might reasonably approach any recording featuring a 'mandolin orchestra' warily. It's not an instrument with a broad tonal palette. To be fair, the UYMO employs four mandolas, three mandocellos, and a double bass in addition to its six(!) mandolins. Add in Breit's own mandolin, though, and that's a lot of strings that don't bend ...

To Breit's credit it all works remarkably well. His lyrics, like his playing, lean to the cerebral, but the melodies are strong, often elegiac, and Breit's voice is a revelation. (He sounds a bit like a less-nasal Dylan, back when Bob still had a voice rather than a croak). And the arrangements are remarkable, all quicksilver flashes and delicate filigrees to accent strong but supple rhythms.

Breit wrote all the tunes, showing an eye for lyrical detail and an idiosyncratic way with words, from the metaphoric title track to the film-noir-flavored romp of "King Kong Strut." Elsewhere there's "Heavyweight Champion," a lament for vanished times and lost love, the unabashedly tender "There Was A Girl," the staunchly defiant "Weigh Me Down," and "Big Bill Broonzy," part tribute and part simple love song.

Breit manages the seemingly incongruous, material that sounds familiar yet utterly unlike anything else, and the results are endlessly fascinating. It's brainy and challenging but packs a powerful emotional punch. 

Not for everyday listening, perhaps, but there's a glimpse of genius at work here, and it's well worth checking out.  Recommended!