Tone Poems Lacks Expressiveness

This project is dedicated to all the nameless and faceless artisans and craftsmen who built these wonderful guitars and mandolins that we love to play.

Today, most people tend to think of American folk music in terms of simplicity, humble unadulterated vocals, simple guitar parts and hole-in-the-wall coffeehouses. Stardom inevitably means crossing over into pop music, a la Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega and Michelle Shocked. And for the most fortunate and gifted, there comes the chance to perform on Sinatra's Duets album. What is generally unknown is that the long tradition of American folk instrumentalists remains well alive, albeit largely in obscurity. Out of the bluegrass and other string band music that flourished in rural America, came a national folk music of sorts. Folk music even has its stars, and David Grisman and Tony Rice are undeniably two of the largest. Unfortunately their latest collaboration, Tone Poems, shares a fundamental problem with much recorded folk music it lacks an expressive immediacy, a soul.

Tone Poems is a beautiful, generous album. Grisman and Rice have devoted themselves to preserving and documenting "the sounds of the great vintage guitars and mandolins." To that end, they each play 17 instruments, one for each of the album's tracks, with Rice on guitar and Grisman on mandolin. The care and affection for these instruments is evident in the lavish forty-page liner notes insert. Replete with more than 100 photographs, it is a mini-documentary on the craftsmanship and evolution of string instrument-manufacturing in this country. But all of this devotion takes the focus away from the music. Though both of these men are masters of their instruments, the duets they offer here are largely lacking in lyricism and originality.

This music sparkles with clean, crisp lines, but doesn't bite. Though Grisman and Rice chose many traditional tunes, they've failed to invest them with a sense of rootedness. The songs do not seem connected to their cultural traditions, be it Appalachian string music, Irish jug band music or African-American blues. Even when they play a great tune, as in the traditional "Wildwood Flower," the solos are surprisingly tame to the point of boredom.

Original compositions on this album tend to sound uneventful and sometimes unoriginal, and while it's admirable that Grisman and Rice included string versions of such diverse tunes as the Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grapelli jazz tune "Swing '42," and the perennial Italian wedding favorite "O Sole Mio," neither of these tunes have any relation to American folk music, nor do they sound particularly interesting performed on guitar and mandolin. Sometimes a jazz tune is just plain better when played by jazz musicians on traditional jazz instruments.

Kudos to Grisman's initiative for starting his own acoustic music recording label, and for preserving and popularizing these viotage instruments, but neither of these accomplishments make Tone Poems any more poetic.