[WORLDLY ACOUSTIC] For the five members of Black Prairie—all of whom come from well-established acts such as the Decemberists and Dolorean—the band is an experimental melting pot. Letting loose its weird curiosities, the Portland group explores the possibilities of standard acoustic instruments while also utilizing some that are less common, like the dobro, bazouki and archtop guitar.
Although signed to the traditional bluegrass label Sugar Hill Records, Black Prairie isn't really a bluegrass band. With influences ranging from Eastern European folk to rootsy Americana, and with half an album's worth of instrumental tracks, the group's second record, A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart, ebbs and flows like a film score.
Instrumental tracks such as "Evil Leaves" and "34 Wishes: The Legend Of" show songwriters capable of compelling, near-classical arrangements. Other songs, like "Rock of Ages" and "What You Gave," center on singer-violinist Annalisa Tornfelt's countrified vocals, blending Alison Krauss' sweetness with Patty Griffin's earnestness. The two styles, however, often feel disconnected from song to song. It's difficult not to imagine what these musicians could do within a more cohesive narrative.
In the moments when the compositional artistry complements the vocals, the band's possibilities feel endless. The seductive "How Do You Ruin Me?," one of the album's darker tracks, places Tornfelt's simple, echoing vocals against flurries of accordion, percussion, bass and violin, which weave in and out of focus.
While there's no denying that, separately, all its parts are strong, the band's sprawling creativity could use a filter. But then, that might defeat the purpose of Black Prairie's existence.
SEE IT: Black Prairie plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., on Friday, Sept. 21, with Shelley Short and Darron Hanlon. 9 pm. $13 advance, $15 day of show. 21+.