Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys
 by Johanna B. Bodde

Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys
(Earthwork Music, 2015)

During the Fall of last year, Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys surprised us with their 'Here Between EP'. If you scroll down on this Reviews page, you will find an extended item introducing the group. And we pick up where it ended: we received more 'Lou-Grass'!


On their new album, 'Ionia', this blazing hot roots ensemble rest on the cusp of change, poised at that moment where everything shifts into high gear and time rushes forward. As a tight-as-hardwood stringband, these ace players know how to sustain this moment expertly, relishing the tension between the past, which keeps pulling them backwards, and the future they’re about to rush into. You can hear this tension musically on their new album, especially on the leading song “Hot Hands”, which rabbits playfully between off-meters, rapid-fire picking, stop-and-go bass lines, and steamy vocals that surge back and forth. There’s incredible kinetic motion in this music, a sense of movement so exacting and precise that it’s almost architectural.
Over the course of four days during a Michigan autumn, the band holed up in their home to record their new album. Gathered in a circle, each member leaned in closer and closer, blending vocals and instruments organically, to listen with the kind of musical precision that's all too rare these days.

"We didn't leave the house for those four days except to walk around the block and get some air", Lindsay explains. "Fall in Michigan is something to behold. Some of our favorite moments were standing on the big wrap around porch (pictured on the album cover) and watching the rain come down in sheets taking gusts of orange and yellow leaves with it." Holed up against the elements, Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys turned to each other for support, and this closeness is easily evident in the uncommon depth and sensitivity of their ensemble playing.

Listen to the new album and you'll hear a band at the very top of its game. A band uncommonly attuned to each other, the product of near-constant touring and live shows made legend by their infectious, high energy performances. Live, The Flatbellys delight in swapping instruments back and forth, and this is preserved on the album as well, with each band member taking turns on each other's instruments. There's a great sense of play and warmth in their music as well, just listen to the fantastically sarcastic "Criminal Style" or the lovely "House Together". But much of the power of this interplay comes from the impressive mastery each member shows over their instruments.

Mandolinist Joshua Rilko picks with a careful precision that turns surprising when he slams into speedy power chords, dobro player Mark Lavengood is remarkably deft at matching melody lines with quick responses, and bassist PJ George III creates bass lines cleverly crafted to uphold the whole structure of the songs. Leading the group, Lindsay Lou has the kind of voice you can get lost in. One part jazz singer, effortlessly transitioning octaves, one part blues shouter, soaring over the band like a clarion call, and one part folk singer, rousing them all together in song.

The instruments and the bedrock of the band may come from bluegrass, but the music that Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys present on their new album 'Ionia' can best be described as pin-sharp Americana. This is music that’s caught between the pull of the past and the push of the beckoning future, ready to leap forward bursting with new ideas and youthful energy.


The group explains: "This record was created live without isolation or overdubs around a few vintage design mics in the dining room of 230 LaFayette St, Ionia, Michigan over the course of four days in the Fall of 2014. The studio came to us from New York. Amidst the rains of October and the glowing Michigan maple leaves, we captured these twelve songs with trueness, nowness and sincerity. Thanks for listening."

1. "Hot Hands": A remarkable lively little opener. The tick-tack percussive sound of the plucked mandolin and the banjo gets immediate attention, together with the dobro part and later on the bass on these start and stop chords. It is very obvious that the group has played countless live shows and they probably don't even have to look at each other to make clear what's supposed to be played. And there's Lady Lindsay Lou front and center on delicious, sultry, soulful vocals, especially on the bridge of this attractive track.

2. "Everything Changed": Lindsay Lou builds up the dynamics right from the start, based on a staccato bass rhythm. Especially towards the end she explores the whole considerable range of her exceptional voice, flexibly using a falsetto trick to optimize the urgent sound. Acoustic guitar and mandolin get into a spell binding sparring game, Joshua winning in a long and very fast solo at the end.

3. "Interlude": A half minute long instrumental piece by dobro and beautiful bowed bass.

4. "The Fix": The little soundscape makes room for this song, with ascending arpeggios building up in a similar way as the second track, although this shorter one has more of a jazz influenced sound, giving Lindsay Lou another opportunity to show off her vocal skills, her band mates nicely harmonizing. The sound is very good, crisp and crystal clear. Recorded in a dining room... While many expensive state of the art studios come up with unimpressive results. Something to think about. This song was also featured on the 'Here Between EP'.

5. "Old Song": A fresh country ballad tributing the love of grandparents with a strong melody, Lindsay Lou being the torch singer, choruses added by the whole group. Instrument swap: for this track Joshua picked up the banjo and gave his mandolin to PJ, while Mark plays bass. In the meantime, let's not forget that lovely Lindsay is also a confident guitar player on most tracks, I like her often somewhat percussive playing style that suits the whole sound very well.

6. "Sometimes": Written by Ben Fidler for Winter/Sessions, a band Mark Lavengood played in previously. So, it's no big surprise that Mark sings lead vocals, while he still plays the big bass. PJ is heard on harmonica and cajón, for this fine funky folk blues, reminiscent of a lost Levon Helm tune. I love that all vocal ending!

7. "Criminal Style": Written by Todd Grebe. Yes, let's find a place to hide the body! Uhm, what happened? I hear a reference to Thelma and Louise. Well, all band members are still there, so I'm not too worried. A loose jug band style number with a big wink! Mark shines again on dobro, he plays just as great as my all time favorite dobro player James Burton on Rick Nelson's country records.

8. "House Together": A song full of hooks, with a challenging backdrop of unusual rhythms, the band is in the start and stop mode again. Joshua makes the mandolin work very hard! That little instrument can be just as influential as a lead guitar, really.

9. "The River Jordan": Written by May Erlewine of the duo Seth and May, for the album 'Golden'. This lovely gospel ballad was also featured on the previous 'Here Between EP'. The first part of the traditional structured song is somewhat restricted on purpose, with beautiful dobro and guitar again, so Lindsay Lou can spring a big surprise at the end with a joyous vocal eruption, reminiscent of a soul singer in a revival church somewhere in the deep South.

10. "Here Between": This was also the title track of the previous EP. The bowed bass introduces the melancholic first verse, the tempo picks up and the dobro makes the melody flow, adorned by mandolin and guitar. Another perfect song that showcases the velvet voice of Lindsay Lou in her elastic twists and turns.

11. "Ionia": The instrumental title track. A rhythmic ode to various musical traditions, with a Celtic flavor. PJ contributes cajón again, together with
flatfoot and hambone (as in body parts?) for this catchy banjo and bass driven number. 

12. "Smooth And Groovy": Vocal, in an old time blues with a jazz phrasing and then the big bass kicks in, together with my friend the dobro going all out, while PJ plays acoustic. Joi de vivre in a smooth and groovy way, indeed.

What else can I say? Please, check this out! Repeat and repeat again. It might be the best tight 'live in a room' production I've ever heard. It is powerful, has lots of variety and energy, the songwriting is very good, with dynamic arrangements full of masterful picking and strumming. Lindsay Lou's voice is definitely one of a kind! The base might be bluegrass, but many modern bands add their own particular twist to the tradition and combine it with elements from folk, country, blues, gospel and rock. That's exactly what happens here. I sense lots and lots of dedication!

And for a little extra: if you love the dobro as much as I do, you must also love Mark Lavengood! The (Laven)good news is, that he makes solo records.
I was able to sample a few tracks and I was impressed, again. I recommend you do the same!

'No Part Of Nothin'' (Self-Released, 2014)  
'Mark Lavengood' EP on 7 inch Vinyl (Self-Released, 2013)
'From Dust To Steel' (Self-Released, 2010)

Written & compiled by Johanna J. Bodde - April 14th, 2015.