Light is New York string quartet Ethel’s keenly awaited second album. If that sounds like a gambit from the pop journalism archive, that’s because Ethel embodies the attitude and pizzazz of a hip rock band, without sacrificing its integrity as an acoustic string quartet.
Pieces by three of the quartet’s members rub shoulders with works by other contemporary composers (including a revisit of part of Mary Ellen Childs’s Dream House, reviewed in The Strad in November 2007) in a heady blend of gutsy Americana, blues, jazz, Latin and European folk. Refinement and earthiness are cleverly interwoven: the syncopated accompaniment of Ethel violinist Cornelius Dufallo’s Lighthouse is graceful but played with heel-of-the-bow grit; the grimy, bluesy violin of cellist Dorothy Lawson’s Chai is allowed space and circumspection by the lightness of the other players; and Lawson’s own superb, soft-edged but quickfire pizzicato adds poise to the foot-stamping, barnstorming groove generated in Marcelo Zarvos’s Memory.
Comedy is also mastered, especially in the two versions of Ethel violinist Mary Rowell’s Sambula, a concoction of samba, circus and hoedown whose lurches and slides are pulled off with gusto and are wonderfully appended by contributions from Einstein the African grey parrot in take two. The nit-picker might point to the occasional drop in energy in this tune as the interchanging cameo lines fly back and forth, and Pamela Z’s bizarre, ultra-sampled Ethel Dreams of Temporal Disturbances is complex and inventive, but perhaps a little out of place on this album. However, Ethel’s energy, commitment, sophistication and sense of fun sweep these small concerns aside. [needs comment on recorded sound]