august 2009

Chris Pandolfi
Sugar Hill

We're a little late in getting to Infamous Stringduster Chris Pandolfi's new collection of original instrumental tunes, but much warm weather remains and Looking Glass is a fantastic summer album to get hip to still. Let us clarify. Saying it is a summer album may mean, to some, a slow, laid-back, easygoing affair, evoking naps under shade trees and lazy, hazy carefree days passed far from the daily grind. Looking Glass, on the other hand, has the summery feel of an outpouring of energy and excitement at the prospect of being cut loose from the usual responsibilities, including hitting the snooze button on the alarm clock. Despite moments of respite from its breezy pace in the evocative, cascading rhythms of "The Flashing Lantern" and the ruminative melody banjo master Pandolfi explores with bassist Byron House on "Melancholy" (the only such song herein with something even approaching a wistful title, and at 2:31 it happens to be the shortest cut of all—appropriately sequenced at album's end, where it serves as a cooling abatement of the preceding music's heat), the modus operandi here is git it-and-go.

True to his Stringduster roots, Pandolfi doesn't hog the stage, though he could and no one would complain. Instead, he gives wide latitude to his supporting cast, which includes his Stringduster mates as well as the aforementioned Byron House, towering fiddler Stuart Duncan, Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge and mandolin master Matt Flinner. The latter, in fact, does a star turn right off the bat, in the album opening "Winnipeg," with a nice, loping solo throughout most of the brisk-paced track, trading dialogue along the way with Eldridge's frisky guitar solo and giving way to Duncan's exuberant cry of a fiddle run. It's Flinner's sprightly mandolin soloing that sets the tone for one of the album's most spirited journeys, "The Wichita Stomp," which actually doesn't stomp so much as sprint on fuel supplied by the fleet discourses offered by Duncan and Eldridge, and later even 'duster Andy Hall gets in the act with a lively frolic on dobro. The languorous kickoff to "Machines" is the outing's most deceptive moment, because in all of about 30 seconds Flinner is off on an impossibly fleet-fingered mandolin run, tailed closely by Pandolfi's own rolling and tumbling banjo, with Duncan sprinting past all of them with a rapid-fire burst of short bowing that Eldridge picks up on and carries forward—the relentless, unrelenting pace and the title of "Machines" (which may be meant to signify that humans cannot possibly play with such speed and precision as heard here) puts one in mind of a similar explosion of pure aural adrenaline that shares part of this composition's title, specifically composer John Adams's breathtaking "Short Ride In a Fast Machine," a fanfare for orchestra in contrast to this fanfare for acoustic stringed instruments.

Though self-effacing as can be, Pandolfi has plenty of stirring moments he can brag about, some noted above; others would include the beautiful, measured exploration of melody he undertakes with tasty, discursive assists from Eldridge, Flinner and Duncan in the self-explanatory "Open C"; and certainly the skittering, atmospheric soloing he undertakes at the outset of "Mr. Manys," on which he is joined by the Matt Flinner trio (Flinner, guitarist Ross Martin, bassist Erin Thorn). Fundamentally sound and adventurous to a degree, Chris Pandolfi's banjo work here always serves the melody and the arrangement first, and subsumes its ego, if you will, to the group effort—and that's reason enough to applaud his efforts at those moments when you can catch your breath as he grabs the spirit of the season and runs with it. —David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024