The 14 tracks that comprise “Fresh From the Woods,” the debut album from Waldo County folk trio Sugarbush, are pure and unfiltered, like raw honey or rough wood. Three voices and three instruments, blended together by hand; no frills, no polish. Much like the simple life sought by several generations of back to the landers in rural Maine, the music of Sugarbush — comprised of cellist Camille Giglio, banjo player Becca Biggs and guitarist Amy Green, all of whom sing — is deliberately raw. These women take what they’ve learned, what they’ve seen and grown, and put it on the table for everyone to see.
“Fresh From the Woods” was recorded live in western Maine, in front of a small audience, which helps to capture a little bit of what I’m sure is a great deal of onstage presence and charisma. There’s an earthy, percussive element on nearly every song that adds nervy energy — though there’s only ever three instruments performing, with Giglio, Biggs and Green using their hands and feet to add heft and foundation to their songs. Though this is certainly folk-influenced music, it’s surprisingly not that bluegrass-y — maybe on the song “Do What You Want,” one of many standout tracks on the album, a defiant statement of personal resolve. If anything, the artists brought to mind here run more towards Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, the Indigo Girls or Fleet Foxes, and less towards traditional bluegrass. The gorgeous, intertwining harmonies of “Mud and Moonlight” are hard to resist; same on “Scream to the Moon,” which, if you listen in the right way, sounds like indie rock Dixie Chicks, which I personally believe is an extremely high compliment to pay someone.
Though it’s that live element that enervates so much of “Fresh From the Woods” — and whoever recorded this performance did a great job — I think Sugarbush would benefit greatly from a studio and a producer that understood the power of a great acoustic band, and could balance each voice and instrument so each one shone individually. Nevertheless, this is a striking, exciting debut from three very talented, dynamic women, who represent much of what’s best about rural Maine.
Another trio from Waldo County, The Rugged — guitarist and songwriter Travis Lloyd, drummer Cody Tibbetts and bassist Tim Valliere — make music similarly inspired by rural life in Maine. It’s ironic that both Sugarbush and the Rugged have albums coming out in the same month this year, as they are flip sides of the same coin, in many way. Where Sugarbush strips away noise to find the spaces in between, The Rugged is a rock band through and through, unafraid of distortion, big riffs and hooks. Both, however, could only spring from the fertile ground of Waldo County.
“Pull the Plow” is The Rugged’s third album, and its most classic rock-influenced so far. The Springsteen vibe here is strong, and it weaves its way through these 11 tracks, though it’s just as likely the influence here is more latter day rockers like Ryan Adams or The War on Drugs. But no matter; The Rugged is one of the best rock bands in Maine, lacking the self-consciousness of so many hip Portland bands, and benefiting from a frontman who can really sing, lyrics that mean something, and a rhythm section that can really rock.
What is it about Waldo County bands, that they understand how to bring spooky, elemental magic into their songs? Is it living in connection with nature, separate from a lot of stupid, superficial crap? Is it bad cell phone service? Whatever it is, it works; in a review of the band way back in 2012, I said the Rugged plied a kind of backwoods voodoo, and that’s absolutely still true. Dig the shimmering creep of “One Eyed Willie,” the muddy, grungy “Burnin’ Down the Track,” and the heartfelt love songs “Don’t Have to Carry It” and “Only Need You When” — there’s something that feels very organic here, and yet also, somehow, a little eerie. I don’t know what it is, but it’s there.
Then again, there’s also a pop jangle that can find its way into these songs, like “Civil Twilight,” a Wilco-esque kicker, the swaggering “Good Pair of Shoes,” or opening track “Into the Fire,” an anthemic rocker. Though many go to the woods to live deliberately, we still live in the real world, mud, blood, bad cell phone service and all. We’re just lucky that there are places like rural Maine, where all those things can beautifully co-exist.
The Rugged with play a CD release party on Saturday, May 7 at Three Tides in Belfast. Sugarbush will perform at the All Roads Music Festival in Belfast on Saturday, May 21, and at the Speakeasy in Rockland on May 27.