The Boston-bred Blood Oranges are one of America’s finest and least formulaic roots-rock combos, balancing stylistic know-how and instrumental skill with a timeless emotional thrust, all the while consistently avoiding the genre’s clichés. Corn River is an accomplished debut, showcasing singer/mandolinist Jimmy Ryan’s bluegrass expertise and guitarist Mark Spencer’s inventive picking on catchy tunes like “Pounding Pipes” and “Heart of Mud.” (Bassist Cheri Knight threatens to steal the show on her vocal showcase, “Thief.”) The band’s arrangement of the country standard “High on a Mountaintop” is so authoritative that Nashville’s own Marty Stuart lifted it whole for his hit version. The four new songs on Lone Green Valley (which also includes Corn River‘s recording of the traditional “Shady Grove”) benefit from Eric Ambel’s lucid production and the sensitive bashing of new drummer Keith Levreault, with tunes like Ryan’s power-poppish “Fire Escape” and Knight’s dark “All the Way Down” demonstrating increased musical and lyrical sophistication.
The Oranges really blossom on The Crying Tree, a holistic Ambel-produced balance of the eclectic foursome’s disparate elements. Ryan contributes fine, rollicking workouts like “Halfway ‘Round the World” and “Titanic,” but the real revelation here is the dusky-voiced Knight, whose four songs include the epic “Crying Tree” and the heart-rending ballad “Shadow of You.”
Blood Oranges has spawned a variety number of side projects, most of them Ryan’s. The Beacon Hill Billies (aka Beacon Hillbillies) is an ace bluegrass-based trio in which he shares the spotlight with singer/guitarist John McGann, while Sunday’s Well (in which Ryan, billed as S‚amus O’Rjain, and McGann play supporting roles; McGann also produced We Don’t Care Where Your Grandparents Are From), led by Sean Cunnningham, is an acoustic octet specializing in modified Irish traditionals. The more rockish Wooden Leg, which also features Mark Spencer (who also produced) and Levreault, places Ryan’s songs, voice and mandolin in an eclectic array of acoustic and electric settings, with some tracks reminiscent of the Blood Oranges’ country-rock stylings and others a bit more ethno-spacey.
Knight’s solo album displays some subtle but significant variations on her contributions to the Blood Oranges. With Ambel producing and playing guitar, the music has a rougher edge that’s well-suited to Knight’s luminously mournful vocals. The images of loss, resignation and resurrection contained in richly emotional tunes like “Light in the Road,” “That I Might See” and the title number reach an organic depth to which other roots-rockers might aspire.