Begun as a side project of the Decemberists, Black Prairie started out as a sort of kinetically diverse Gypsy string band, falling maybe to the edgier, progressive side of bluegrass, and all instrumental, but with the emergence of violinist Annalisa Tornfelt as a singer on 2012's A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart, the group's sophomore album, things on this third album have taken a whole other turn. By now their own creative entity and well past just being an adjunct to the Decemberists, Black Prairie have delivered an album of band originals, all with vocals, and with hardly a trace of any bluegrass leanings. It's folk-rock of a sort, an energetic and amped-up blend of Fairport Convention, say, with early Jefferson Airplane, maybe, all done with a sort of junkyard garage band mentality that clearly indicates that this band of precisely talented musicians isn't about to stand still and be labeled.
Black Prairie is a folk-rock collective based in Portland, founded by Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk. Fellow Decemberists Nate Query, John Moen and Jenny Conlee are also involved on bass, drums and accordion, along with Annalissa Tornfelt on fiddle and vocals and Jon Neufeld on guitar. Fortune is their third release, and it’s a good one. It’s not quite a Decemberists album, but then again it’s not supposed to be.
What began as a side project that bloomed from The Decemberists’ inner circle has now become a full-time day job with an identity all its own. Three albums on, Black Prairie has shed most of the bluegrass trappings that they invested in originally and evolved instead into a band that’s no longer constrained by any predetermined course or identity. Clearly at ease with their current standing, the aptly titled Fortune reflects a general sense of confidence and no holds-barred attitude, a feeling manifest in thirteen tracks flush with freewheeling ambition.
For album #4, Portland’s Black Prairie decided to shake things up a bit. Instead of continuing its straightforward string band shtick, the sextet – essentially a Colin Meloy-less Decemberists plus guitarist Jon Neufeld and singer/violinist Annalisa Tornfelt – incorporated the rock rhythms and textures with which it had been experimenting on the road through covers like Kansas’ “Carry On My Wayward Son” and Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same” (neither included here, alas). Thus Fortune, while still predicated on acoustic instruments, actually rocks.