Sunday, 5 January 2014

4 PROCHES

CD Review

Wayfaring Stranger

If you read the blurb on the inside of the sleeve of the first album of the young family group 4 Proches from the Hill Country of Texas, then you could be forgiven for thinking it's going to be a bit preachy and Bible-beltish but don't let that put you off.

Wayfaring Stranger, the first album from 4 Proches
Almost like a bluegrass version of the Osmonds, thankfully without the catsuits and fringes, 4 Proches are obviously steeped in the American religious tradition. But if you listen to the album without knowing the background then there is nothing pious or preaching about it.
For a first album from such a young band, although they have all been playing and singing as a family for quite a few years, it's very easy on the ear and even though it's studio produced it has a rustic and organic feel to it which harkens back to the radio days of 1920/30s America where there were travelling studios and artists could just walk in and record their song for a fee, never to be heard of again. Although to hastily add that's unlikely to happen with the Proches.
The band consists of eldest Beecher, Ezra who is 20, Liza, the only girl of the clan, and Asa the youngest at just 10. While for the majority of the time this approach to recording the album works there is the odd occasion, such as on Memory of a Dead Man, where it sounds like it was recorded in of the band's bedrooms on their computer.
However, fans of bluegrass and good ol' folk/country music will enjoy this album. It's great to just let the sound wash over you and enjoy the band's talent which is steeped as high as the hills from whence their sound comes.
The band came to international prominence with their video of the title track Wayfaring Stranger on Youtube which is simple, slick, atmospheric and a delight to watch. Beecher's voice is gorgeously deep and yet smooth as a professional conman's patter. Their costumes on the video were perfect and they look every bit the professional outfit.
The great thing about 4 Proches is this is their starting point and already they are a great group with oodles of artistry and whose voices which harmonise wonderfully, so you know they are only going to get better as they mature.
There are two tracks which fans of the Cohen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? will enjoy I'll Fly Away and Down To The River To Pray. With their foot-stomping rhythm and neat banjo picking from Ezra the group has put together a more upbeat version of I'll Fly.. which carries more than a breath of good ol' country air with  it. Beecher's voice is much lighter on this than other tracks such as Wayfaring stranger and his guitar playing is a delight. This is the family harmonising at their best and if you can stop your feet or fingers from tapping along then you probably don't like music anyway. They add a little variety by segueing seamlessly into Do Lord which is an old time spiritual guaranteed get any repentant sinner dancing in the church aisles.
The other track made famous by the Cohen's film Down To The River... shows off their lovely voices with their A Capella version. They sound great now so it will be interesting to see how the dynamics will change as they boys' voices mature.
From left Ezra, Asa, Liza and Beecher Proche
Liza's soft tones come more to the fore with Ferris Wheel and even though it's perhaps among the weaker tracks on the album, the playing is still impeccable and the instrumental parts are by far the strongest elements whereas the singing seems to lack commitment from Beecher on this one.
The harmonies are spot on again though with the title track and Beecher's rich voice dominates and is held up beautifully by his sister and brothers.
Beecher and Liza's voices work together perfectly for the second track Sandcastles which is a light ballad picked out by the minimal sound of the Ezra on banjo and Asa on mandolin. Ezra's voice can be heard more on this track too and while Beecher has the deeper voice, Ezra has the middle ground with his lighter tone and Liza takes the soft and high harmonies which all blend wonderfully to make their rich sound.
It's always a brave move to record a track which is so embedded in folk tradition and has been covered by almost every folk, acoustic or country artist at some point. Liza is the high point though of their version of The Fields of Athenry. The remarkable aspect of this album is that even though, as on this track, the production and sound isn't brilliant, as a group they are still head and shoulders above many first time album makers. This track, like quite a few on the album, is minimalist in terms of the instrumental inserts, chords etc but stripped to their bare essentials the songs have an integrity and simplicity which makes you feel you are in the same room as the group.
The Proches are on top form with the shortest track on the album There Is A Time which somehow opens with the feel of  a 60s folk singing group such as The Seekers but manages to slip into the feel of the old American country shows you often see in black and white tv show reruns.
Like Athenry, with Scarborough Fair it has been done so many times in so many ways and although it's a very good version they don't really bring anything new to the track except for Ezra's obvious talent on the banjo.
The Cohen brothers hit film O Brother.
Following this he gets a chance to really slap it into gear with Long Road which really sounds like it should have been kept as an instrumental as none of the voices, most notably Beecher's. are not particularly good and don't really add anything to the sum of the tune.
Production-wise and in terms of the singing Memory of a Dead Man, a rather dour ballad is perhaps the weakest track on the album and sounds like it was added last minute without really being finished off properly. Beecher's voice dominates and isn't particularly accurate and should have been balanced out a little more by the sound of his siblings.
Thankfully the final track of the album leaves this behind and is an upbeat and simple tune where as a group the family is back on form. The boys' voices and Liza's fiddle blend beautiful to take the album out on a high.
For a first album 4 Proches should be proud of themselves they are immensely talented, a pleasure to listen too and they need to get more exposure.
It's only a matter of time before they end up making a name for themselves on this side of the pond on the festival circuit, appearing on Jools Holland or maybe even the Transatlantic Sessions. Beecher, Ezra, Liza and Asa are definitely ones to watch out for.

Wayfaring Stranger, tracklist
 1 I'll Fly Away/Do Lord
 2 Sandcastles
 3 Down To The River To Pray
 4 Ferris Wheel
 5 Wayfaring Stranger
 6 The Fields of Athenry
 7 There Is A Time
 8 Scarborough Fair
 9 Long Road
10 Memory Of A Dead Man
11 Love What You Do