Keep Your Suitcase Packed
Finders and Youngberg Keep Your Suitcase Packed (Neighborly) ALTHOUGH RELATIVELY rare, it's always uplifting when a 'marriage of convenience' catches a spark and the synergy of well-matched souls yields a union in which the joyous, unexpected upside trumps the pairing's predicted utility. That's not presuming to probe the private/personal relationships of couples Mike & Amy Finders or Aaron & Erin Youngberg, but rather to salute the serendipitous musical marriage of these two extraordinarily gifted couples that is consummated with this sizzling, endlessly-varied, organic wood-burner. The Finders' move from Galena, Illinois to Iowa City led to a decade's worth of exquisite pan-Americana explorations (both 'live' and on disc). Recent touring out west necessitated recruiting vocal and instrumental support for Amy (vocals, mandolin) and Mike (vocals, guitar and harmonica). Colorado-based Erin (vocals, bass) and Aaron (masterful on banjo, pedal steel and recording gear) Youngberg not only filled the need, but the musical and interpersonal connection was such that Mike and Amy are relocating their family to join the Youngbergs in Fort Collins. Keep Your Suitcase Packed is the first recording by this rustic quartet, presenting a dozen aural treats-including nine gems penned by Mike Finders, a major-league, pan-genre tunesmith who's already a two-time winner at MerleFest's prestigious Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (once in Country, once in Gospel). For her part, Amy Finders boasts one of the most pneumatic, acrobatic and infinitely personal vocal deliveries in recent folk/bluegrass history. Produced with a punch and transparent immediacy that effectively places the privileged listener smack-dab in the middle of an intimate, front-parlor guitar pull, the disc jumps out of the gate with "Iowa Winter," an easy-rolling confection with Amy and Erin evoking a Dolly/Emmylou hill-country confab. Mike's retro/vintage "Ball and Chain Blues" finds Mike & Amy trading punches in Jimmie Rodgers' shadow with the sass of Geoff & Maria Muldaur, and then Amy and Erin chuck their men's clothes out on the lawn on the kinetic "Go Ahead and Leave." Mike and Amy ghost Erin's lovely, perfectly cold-blooded vocal on her self-penned, old school murder ballad, "Old Shine Crow." "Same Old Me, Same Old You" is one of several flat-out masterpieces on the disc. A deceptively simple melody and an exquisitely constructed lyric combine to mine the bittersweet truths of time-worn relationships-but is it a concession/surrender or recognition of an inescapable, deep-rooted bond? Yes... Erin's second offering, "Perfect Little Life" (co-written w/KC Groves), is a sprightly, whistle-in-the-graveyard skewering of dithering, 'Stepford'-esque conformity. Mike's sublimely-sweet, humble "Moonlight on the Colorado" ("we drank burnt coffee, we ate cashews...") blends an early James Taylor delivery with a big sky Western approach that'll melt the hardest of hearts, Amy's hard-charging punch-out of Paul King's "Cold Hard Rain" earns a TKO and, finally, Erin smokes Mike's coolwater, country-rock biscuit, "Bushelbasket." Throughout, the songs and the vocals are so fine, so plugged-in that the meticulously-casual arrangements and top-tier, workmanlike musicianship (by all hands, but especially by MVP Aaron) tend to sneak up on you. Most importantly, Keep Your Suitcase Packed is steeped in a visceral longing-a sexual tension, if you will-that is all-too-often missing in the academic/Puritan presentations of American folk/bluegrass. In the end, it all dovetails together like well-lubricated naughty-bits, extending and expanding the rhythm, tension and passion that have always made this planet's 'human beans' turn, burn and step back up to do it all again. --JIM MUSSER.