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The Lowdown:

Harpeth Rising

Maria Di Meglio (cello/vocals/percussion), Jordana Greenberg (vocals/violin/percussion), Rebecca Reed-Lunn (banjo/vocals/percussion)

Based In:
Louisville, Kentucky




Release Date:
August 15, 2015

Independently released

Previous Releases:
Harpeth Rising (2010), Dead Man's Hand (2011), The End of the World (with David Greenberg, 2012), Tales From Jackson Bridge (2013), Live at the Dreaming Tree (2015)

Americana, folk, string folk, progressive folk, bluegrass, progressive bluegrass, newgrass


Related Articles:

Harpeth Rising, Shifted cover art

Rating: 10 out of 10



September 22, 2015



September Featured Review

Harpeth Rising: Shifted

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


Now an all-female trio, Harpeth Rising has always boasted a unique style and superior musicianship, but their new album Shifted demonstrates that lead vocalist/violinist Jordana undoubtedly inherited every base pair of the Greenberg family writing gene. (l-r) Rebecca Reed-Lunn, Jordana Greenberg, & Maria Di Meglio.

“Something has shifted,” declares the transmogrifitory narrator in the title song of Harpeth Rising’s latest album. In terms of the band itself, that something is not the members’ unquestionable mastery of their instruments, their lock-step vocal harmonies, or their deft blending of folk, bluegrass, rock, and classical styles. And while this is the group’s first studio album as a trio and first since moving their home base from Nashville to Louisville, Kentucky, neither seems to have had much of an effect since the remaining members have taken up foot percussion duties in addition to their primary instruments and they spend most of their time on the road, anyway. No, the seismic shift is the blossoming of lead vocalist/violinist Jordana Greenberg into one of the finest lyricists in the Americana world. Greenberg’s inspired songwriting, combined with Harpeth Rising’s intricate arrangements and lively performances, make Shifted one of the year’s absolute must-listen albums.

When we first started covering Harpeth Rising, they were fresh off of a collaboration with Jordana’s father, David Greenberg. That project, The End of the World, scored a perfect “hang 10” rating in its No Surf Review and garnered Surfy Award Song of the Year honors for the track “Truck Stop Mama.” Although at least one of his songs has found its way onto each of the band’s other collections, that album exclusively featured the songwriting talents of the elder Greenberg, who despite a lack of previous recording experience instantly distinguished himself as an unquestionable giant of the craft, one whose immaculately constructed parables for the common man easily placed him in the same class as masters such as Dylan, Van Zandt, Cohen, McMurtry, Earle, and Kristofferson.

Jordana has said that one of the most cataclysmic shocks of her life was the day she realized as a child that her father and Bob Dylan were, in fact, different people, and it is therefore no small praise to say that with Shifted, the daughter has proven that she is every bit the songwriter her father is. While glimpses of this brilliance were visible in her band’s early works and much greater evidence for her development were present in 2013’s Tales From Jackson Hole, it is clear that on this album she has completed her metamorphosis and emerged from chrysalis as a full-fledged songwriting genius. The album’s densely worded, highly symbolic allegories are reminiscent of her father’s style, as are her progressive politics and tendency to send up religion, corporate culture, and misplaced modern morals.

I don't get it. These girls just scream "punk rock" to me... I'm even pretty sure Maria stole that outfit from Pussy Riot.

Singularly among the bands I regularly follow, I am often the youngest person at a Harpeth Rising concert, aside from the performers themselves. In contrast to the relative kindergarten of most rock shows, the band’s unique combination of traditional and classical music tends to draw a more mature crowd. Even given the generally progressive nature of folkies, I often wonder how many of their wine-sipping audience members go beyond the group’s elegant arrangements & unquestionable musicianship and analyze the lyrics to realize just how radical the self-described “commie veg-head hippie” at the center of the group really is. My guess is that if more did, venue floors across the country (and across the pond) would be slick with the discharge of Dionysian spit takes. But art is supposed to challenge the status quo, and Shifted does just that, beautifully.

Greenberg’s prime satirical target on the album is undoubtedly religion, a result of deep rumination on the topic that eventually led her to leave the fold even as she remains steeped in its mythology and mindful of its contradictory influences to this day.

“I grew up as part of the only Jewish family within about 60 miles of a small town in the heart of the Indiana Bible Belt,” Greenberg explains. “I moved there as a child from a largely secular part of Canada, and was unprepared for the Daily Question: ‘What church do you go to?’ It was an innocent question, but it made me feel strange and different. I want to make it clear that in my 20 years in Paoli, Indiana, I have never experienced anything that felt like anti-Semitism. But an hour north, in a much larger community with a generally very high ratio of degrees-to-people, I certainly did. It came mostly from the parents of children I was friends with, and included everything from sitting me down and talking to me about Jesus behind my parents’ backs to telling their kids they couldn't be friends with me. Furthermore, there was an observable divide between the Jewish community in the area and the Christian community, and the whole thing seemed very distasteful to me, even as a young child. I think that is partially what led me to leave organized religion very young. I then spent many years struggling to find my way back to a neutral mindset about it, which I have (obviously) not quite achieved. And as our country continuously entangles religion and politics, and religion and human rights, the evolution of my feelings about all of it takes a bent toward the exasperated.”

The canonical counterprogramming is present right from the start, as the leadoff track, “I Am Eve (I Am the Reason),” takes a fresh look at the story of original sin. While it’s usually the extra-Biblical and lessor-known first wife of Adam, Lilith, to whom freethinking commentators flock, Greenberg instead chooses to repaint Eve as a Promethean heroine, stealing the knowledge of good and evil from her god and giving it to her fellow man:

And we gave up simple pleasures,
And I deprived us of our wings,
But without a shield of armor
We can feel so many things.

How would you really know
What to dream of at night?
If you hadn’t seen the darkness,
You wouldn’t crave the light.

Between verses, Jordana’s violin soars to great heights as it dances around Maria Di Meglio’s booming cello and the strum of Rebecca Reed-Lunn’s banjo, giving the song a lofty, dramatic quality that edges into frantic as the bow strokes shorten as the narrative nears its final chapter.

Ultimately, Eve accepts the fact that she is destined to be vilified by those afraid of the consequences of having to think for themselves, but comforts herself with the knowledge that she was in the right, having sacrificed herself and her reputation in order to bring this firelight to her sons and daughters:

They don't seem at all surprised that you stumbled upon their odd little string-themed Wiccan conclave, do they?

And I am willing to be painted
In the colors of your choice,
For I am Eve, I am the reason
You even have a voice.

Driven by hand claps, resonant wood rapping, and dueling pizzicato violin & cello, the final religious contemplation on the album comes in the brilliant form of “Providence,” which was inspired by a real-life train trip from the puritanical center of Boston to the plantation at the heart of the Island of Rogues. When I asked, given the context of the story, whether this meant she was, in fact, kidnapped by an apocalyptic nudist grifter cult or if the symbolism of the city name was just too much for her to pass up, Jordana replied simply, “Yes, and yes.”

“Our society gets very wrapped up in the idea of an overarching totem pole, in which certain people are ‘gifted,’ ‘leaders’ or the very worst...‘chosen,’” Greenberg explained when pressed.

“Imagine if people woke up to the fact that they are caught up in someone else's psychotic, warped fantasy, striving to be someone that has been defined for them by other people and then wrapped so carefully in power and metaphor that they think the whole thing is their own idea... and then it all gets stripped away and they realize they're actually locked in a white room inside a gated neighborhood, naked and hungry, while a troop of crazed drifters runs off with everything they owned.”

In the allegory, the narrator steps onto the platform of the last train’s last stop, only to be confronted by a group of would-be prophets who convince her that she is, in fact, dead, but luckily among the elect:

It’s gonna be divine
When you see the truth.
We got the Fountain of Youth
And the Holy Grail
Is your coffee cup
And the dinner guests
Are the higher ups.

After being coerced into turning her back on temporal life and relinquishing her worldly goods, the leafless traveller soon realizes she's been duped, like all religious adherents, by those promising something too good to be true:

Oh, how could I think that this was real?
When the boss walked out wearing bright red heals
I should have known this wasn’t Paradise.
When they tell you you’ve been chosen,
Oh, you’d better think twice.

Reward or not, these three look like they're always on their best behavior, anyway, don't they?

These bookends are hardly the only examples of the theological theme, however, as it runs like a thread throughout the entire album. The slow and understated “Proof,” for instance, focuses on morality and meaning in a secular life, thereby examining religion in its absence. Greenberg recounts the worldview passed down to her by her mother over softly plucked banjo and deep, bowed cello:

There’s no reward for good behavior
And there’s no such thing as fair.
You can build the highest towers;
There’s no answers there.
You’d better love the feeling
Of sweat upon your brow,
‘Cause that’s the only proof you’ll get
We’re even living now.

It’s been a long, cold winter
And you want me to say,
There’s a light beyond the tunnel;
There’s an end to dark and grey.

But don’t wish away your time
Because time is all we’ve got.
God knows I don’t blame you.
We’re cut from the same cloth.

Written by Jordana but hewing so closely to her father’s comic parable style as to be a parabole of a work from his own pen, “Well, Hell” simultaneously skewers religious and corporate institutions through the internal journey of a woman seeking salvation, only to conclude that this world need fear environmental damnation far more than spiritual:

Make your peace with Mother Nature.
Close your shutters tight tonight,
‘Cause the thunder’s rolling closer
And we’re headed for the light.
We took too long to figure out it wasn’t all for us.
Course is set. It’s really done. Too late to adjust.

I think I’ll take a different route, though risky it may be.
I’ll choose to disregard the end and drink a cup of tea.
Tomorrow, if tomorrow comes, I will sing a song.
When it’s really truly over, I will say “So long.”

While verses are filled with syncopated percussion and pizzicato plucking that give it a distinctive Eastern European, flaring-dress, whirling-footed feel, the chorus contrasts with its deep, long bows of the cello underlying the ladies’ three-part vocal harmonies. The final recitation is followed by a fast-fluttering rapture of the violin that releases the song’s pent-up energy.

Co-written by the Greenbergs, “Seven Thunders” is an allegory examining man’s responsibility for the wellbeing of his fellow travelers. Marked by rich vocal harmonies and unsettling staccato, the verses tell of the interactions between two unlucky journeyers who seem to pattern their relations more on John Galt than the Good Samaritan, while the choruses are packed full of references to a certain biblically prominent number. Rather than an indictment of religion, this song uses scriptural references to form its mythology.

“The number seven is directly drawn from the Book of Revelations, which makes reference to it a noteworthy number of times,” says Jordana. “The song aims to parallel those references to modern society, and of course... the apocalypse. In the Book of Revelations, seven seals keep the apocalyptic scroll from opening. Once those seals are broken...kaboom. Some of the references are direct while most are more interpretive, and mix both historicist and futurist ideas.”

Not every track in the collection is quite so heavy, however, such as the sprightly “Rollin’ To You,” a song that speaks of the itinerate life Greenberg and her bandmates adopt on tour. In particular, it focuses on the feeling common to such wanderers lucky enough to have something—or someone—to go home to that even when they are travelling in the opposite direction, they’re ultimately headed back toward that which lies closest to their hearts. The flying-fingered banjo plucks evoke the rolling miles while the rise and fall of soaring, frenzied string lines mirror the waxing & waning of beauteous scenery and saddle sore rumps.

“The Raid,” David Greenberg’s only sole credit on the album, also focuses on the life of a vagabond. The younger Greenberg says it’s the first song she ever remembers hearing in her childhood, and given its quality it’s a shame it took someone this long to record it. In his trademark combination of Guthriesque language & Cohenesque wordscapes, David recounts the Homeric odyssey of a man trying to return to his path after being rousted by police and railway bulls, all while travelling through a looking-glass-warped world populated by a legion of Carrollian caricatures that give it a feel similar to the stream-of-wayfare portraitures of Robbie Robertson’s masterpiece “The Weight”:

I dreamed I woke up in the raid last night.
They were smokin’ every drifter they could get in sight.
I made it to the freight; I escaped in the nick of time.

I dived through the boxcar; this cat tips his hat.
Says this train is leavin’ but it ain’t comin’ back.
I said that’s okay; I’m just goin’ along for the ride.

Help me get back to the road again.
I don’t got time to explain.
Can’t remember how I got here.
Doesn’t matter much now, anyway.

In the realm of personal reflections is “The Borderline,” a song filled with soft, flowing musical phrases that contemplates the place of an emotionally and intellectually fiery individual among those whom she loves:

And I know it’s not easy walking next to me.
My life is so much stranger than I knew it would be.
It’s not always easy to be my friend,
But won’t you hang on with me up until the end?

Any similarity to the songwriter is purely coincidental, I’m sure.

Given their relentless touring schedule, the ladies of Harpeth Rising seem to spend an inordinate amount of time to frolicing in wildflower-covered pastures, but after producing an album as stunning as Shifted, they deserve it.

The collection is rounded out by an extra dramatic cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” (minus the sickening 80’s synthesizer), which is quite appropriate given the similarities between his lyrical style and that shared by the family Greenberg. Weighty of both verse & music, “Fortune” muses over the balance of fate and choice in the making of a life’s path, while the jaunty & jocular “Good Ideas” examines poor decision making and outside loci of identity. The titular “Shifted” also focuses on ipseity as the subject transforms from steel to stone to sand to clay, elucidating the benefits and deficiencies of each form.

In short, Shifted is everything music should be, brilliantly written, arranged, and executed from start to finish, without a single track that disappoints. Its complex, thoughtful lyrics & equally intricate music put it in a class by itself, and while it may not appeal to the punk crowd, for anyone who prefers their revolution more cerebral than bloody, this is a work primed to challenge the mind. If you only buy one album this year, let it be Shifted.



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