Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards
Cutting her teeth as a sideman in Boston’s roots music scene, Laura Cortese forged a unique path through a pool rich in talent (due to a large population of Berklee School of Music graduates like herself) including stints as an instrumentalist with Band of Horses, Pete Seeger, Rose Cousins, Jocie Adams (of the Low Anthem), and Uncle Earl. Her Compass Records debut, CALIFORNIA CALLING, is the next step in her career as a frontwoman and bandleader – she & the Dance Cards (Valerie Thompson – Cello, Jenna Moynihan – fiddle & banjo, and a rotating cast of North America’s preeminent bassists) break new ground with a bold and elegant new album, based in the lyrical rituals of folk music but exploring new territories of rhythm and sonics. With the support of Sam Kassirer, album producer of folk-pop favorites like Lake Street Dive and Joy Kills Sorrow, they’ve created something that’s simultaneously rowdy, delicate and cinematic. This is post-folk that seriously rocks.
Ethereal harmonies open the album on “The Low Hum” but by the time “California Calling” kicks in, it becomes apparent that this is pop music, born from the roots tradition but now traveling the roads of 70s California. There’s a hint of Laurel Canyon and strains of Fleetwood Mac, but somehow it still maintains a nod to the deep traditions of Celtic fiddle and American folk. The collective credits among the Dance Cards reveal the diverse strains of influence – it’s a broad continuum that extends from Darol Anger to Amanda Palmer, from the symphony to prog rock, and even into protest leaning music like Pete Seeger and Michael Franti. Each woman brings not only her instrumental prowess, but her vocal gifts as well. The four voices are just as much instruments as they are providers for lyric and harmony.
The song “Stockholm” comes accompanied by a video, shot on location in that city, that showcases the sheer joy that these women seem to find in performing together. With Cortese’s instantly recognizable vocal rising over the percussive ruckus they create outside of the usual tools of rock n roll, the song achieves a hypnotic bounce until it eventually bursts into a celebratory chorus that manages to sidestep sentimentality and land like a laser on simple happiness
It’s on the single “Pace Myself” where the group really shows how far they are pushing the spectrum of what can be considered folk music – it uses handclaps and a cello to achieve a hip hop pulse with Cortese finding a deep, husky and seductive lead vocal, another color in her impressive palette of easily accessed emotions. The bridge owes something to Justin Timberlake, in the best way possible – it’s both catchy and emotionally raw, the women stretching their ranges while the fiddles drive home the point – we can all get a little out of control in love sometimes.
Overall, CALIFORNIA CALLING has a wide emotional and sonic scope. The result is a sound that is not a string band, nor a string quartet, not a female acappella group or indie band, but somehow all of those at once, all while staying honest and true to an identity as folk instrumentalists. Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards have truly brought something fresh to the party that should keep them on the dance floor for years to come.