Lehto & Wright,
A Game of Chess
(New Folk, 2003)

A Game of Chess features the melded sounds of folk and rock as played by Minneapolis-based duo Steve Lehto and John Wright. Using a mixture of traditional and contemporary instruments, they have reinterpreted several well-known songs and included a few of their own for good measure.

The album begins with a nicely modernized version of "The Long Peg and Awl," which introduces Wright's gravely vocals. His voice is perfect for the blend of folk and rock: he obviously understands and loves both kinds of music and uses this to create a hybrid that is great to hear for a change of pace from straight folk. It's just as well they start out on such a good note, because the second song gets my hackles up every time I hear it. "I Wish I Was Single Again/I Buried My Wife and Danced on Her Grave" is probably intended as a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun, but a song about wishing your wife dead, dancing on her grave and trying to pick up at her funeral is just unpleasant. This one is better left in the archives.

Thankfully, the album picks up again straight away and one gratefully realizes that the previous song was simply a hiccough in an otherwise highly enjoyable recording. Although the tracks are mostly made up of songs, instrumental segments are often inserted into songs or follow the sung portion. This mixing of vocal and instrumental is well done on most pieces and adds an interesting dimension to the music as they play predominantly modern instruments. Hearing these old tunes played skillfully with up-to-date technology and musical sensibilities is an experience that makes this album stand out from the many folk-rock albums out there. Older instruments do pop up periodically, making the hybridity of the music even more apparent.

Sadly for some, happily for others, one of the most prominent features of this album is the electric guitar. Although played well, it takes up more of the songs and is much louder than is either necessary or pleasant. I guess it covers the "rock" half of folk-rock.

The album includes a fantastic version of Christy Moore's "I Wish I Was in England," which is followed by no less than five instrumental tunes! Clocking in at just over 10 minutes, it isn't the longest track on the album. That honour is left for the epic "Ten Long Years" about a wrongly convicted man who serves, yep, 10 years in prison. The lyrics are traditional, but the music was composed by Lehto and Wright -- which doesn't come as any surprise as, typically, songs that fall under "traditional" don't include exceptionally long guitar solos. Fortunately, the piece is rather interesting with a sense of waiting and impatience.

Included in "Four Nights Drunk/Kesh Jig" is a song previously recorded by Steeleye Span and bearing a strong resemblance to Kate Rusby's "The Goodman," though with a bit more edge. Pete Seeger's "Of Time and Rivers Flowing" has an acoustic arrangement that again highlights Wright's great singing voice and the guitar skills of the duo. Two original pieces are also included; "Antietam" and "Air" both showcase Lehto's composing skills and fit in beautifully with the other pieces on the album.

Lehto and Wright play an interesting mix that they have combined in an original and fascinating way. This album is not for traditionalists, as Lehto and Wright have definitely pushed a few boundaries. They never push too far, though, as the music does remain firmly rooted in the folk tradition. It is this ability to walk a very fine line and create great music while they are at it that make A Game of Chess such a great album. If you are looking for something a little more challenging in the folk genre, then look no further.

- Rambles
written by Jean Emma Price
published 23 July 2005

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