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Published: 2002/07/23
by Jesse Jarnow

Trash Fish – Ralph White

Terminus Records 0203-2

The gimmick of Ralph White's "Trash Fish" is this: the record is made up of
a blend of traditional string band instruments (banjo, fiddle) laid on top
of a bed of African thumb pianos (mbira, kalimba). It works so effectively,
with such efficient purpose, that one wonders why it hadn't been done before.
The answer, of course, is because it's perhaps one of the least obvious
instrument combinations one could come up with. That said, the brilliance of
it has a lot to do with the fact that it doesn't feel like something
somebody "came up with" in any conscious sense of the word, but what someone
just did. The somebody in question is Ralph White, a founding member
of the now-defunct Bad Livers, the legendary Texas punk-bluegrass trio who,
more often than not, nailed the spirit of folk genres far more than their
traditionalist counterparts.

The banjo and the mbira have a fair amount in common, which is why they work
together so well. For one, the basic premise behind each is the arpeggio —
the sounding of each note in a chord. So, having two different instruments
picking arpeggios works out very well. The way in which the arpeggios are
created on both instruments is percussive and rhythmic. There's a pop to it,
a momentum created by the way the fingers have to be arranged over the sound
box. Most importantly, they fit together sonically — both the banjo and
mbira sound (and are) metallic and plucked. The banjo is a little harsher
than the warm thumb pianos, and the tension between the two voices creates
an engrossing, almost subliminal, blend.

The music that White plays is vaguely traditional. He tackles a fair amount
of passed along numbers (including "Shady Grove", "I am a Stranger Here",
and the most relevant version of "Corrinna" to come down the pike in a
while). The overall effect is far more personal, though. Much bluegrass
music relies on the dynamics of a group performance — the interplay of
vocal harmonies and driving instrumentation (the high, lonesome sound). And
despite bluegrass's myriad incredible vocal stylists, it's never sounded
particularly lonesome to me. Neither does White, I guess, but he does sound
alone. But he doesn't sound particularly bummed out about that fact, either.
In fact, it sounds as if he's enjoying it. "In the morning, I take my time,
drink my coffee, and breathe the air," he sings.

Part of the personal quality also comes form the fact that White plays all
the instruments. The disc is lent an immediacy by the fact that the
bandleader never had to translate his musical ideas to any other language,
never had to convey them to any other players, and was able to execute them
in something resembling their original form. Because of this absolute
natural fluidity of existence, it's the kind of album where questions of
authenticity never come up. It's not that White is playing with these forms,
blending these instruments, out of a need to be revolutionary or new or
whatever, but because there's some attraction. The sounds of mbiras and
kalimbas are intimate, like xylophones crossed with toy pianos, and they
sound child-like — acoustic and pleasing and chming.

The mixing adds to this as well. Listening on headphones, there is a simple
depth field, with the thumb pianos mixed in close to the ear, the string
instruments and the vocals a little further back. The two levels are clearly
separated from each other — like one is an internal narrative commenting on
the other. It feels like the world inside White's head — and, with a little
trust, will also become the world inside the listener's head. And it's a
charming, warm, magical place to be. It is relaxing and soothing, with clear
air and stars in the sky.

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