“Folk” has come to describe a wide range of musical styles in the modern era. Everything from indie music using folk instruments to rock with a more rustic beat is classed as folk music. Many artists embrace the rich history of Americana in music and are exploring the possibilities of marrying regional folk music with more modern methods. Some bands, like Bay Area duo Commonunion59, however, seek to bring back a more simple and stripped-down version of folk – one that was popular in the 50s and 60s but has since gone by the wayside. Heartbeat Serenade, Commonunion59’s latest album, sticks to classic 60s folk with a feel-good message.
Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan are some of the names most quickly identified with the folk movement of the 50s and 60s, but this “one guitar, one voice” sound was born in California’s bay area, which is from where the duo known as Commonunion59 hail. Steve McKenzie and Laura Malasig, as Commonunion59, began writing and performing songs together in late 2012 and released their first album, Magnolia Waltz, in 2013. Their follow-up, Heartbeat Serenade, brings even more pure, feel-good folk to the musical playing field.
Heartbeat Serenade will release on February 11, but select songs are available now on Commonunion59’s Soundcloud page. To underline their feel-good, “life is beautiful” message, the album opens with It’s Alright, a country-inspired track which may remind listeners of Bonnie Raitt. Standing out immediately in this track and throughout the album are Malasig’s vocals, which are versatile and rich but with an easy, fun quality. Steve McKenzie’s well-heeled guitar skills are also a highlight of It’s Alright.
McKenzie’s vocal skills, with a timbre that resembles Tom Petty or Sonny Bono, are not as strong as Malasig’s, but he harmonizes well with her and does it in a way that highlights her almost operatic voice without trying to overshadow her. The duo truly has a good balance in their song composition, and each of them supports the other’s strengths without any competition or ego. This relationship is evident in songs like American Dream and Catch the Wind, two classic folk songs which both highlight Malasig’s vocals and showcase the band’s great harmonizing abilities.
The album’s title track, one which features only McKenzie on vocals, is a fun surprise. Moving away from standard folk a bit, Heartbeat Serenade has a more 60s psychedelic quality, sounding a bit like the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever. In this sort of setting, McKenzie’s vocals do very well, and it is an interesting break in the predominantly folk album.
The sure and certain highlight of Heartbeat Serenade is a track close to the end called Not Dead Inside. This song begins with only a piano and Malasig’s incredible voice, with a tiny bit of harmonizing and a guitar solo from McKenzie. It then builds to an achingly beautiful crescendo before stopping as quickly as it began. Not Dead Inside is lyrically the most poignant song from the duo, discussing the hope which can come from heartbreak. In this track, Malasig’s voice sounds a bit like Natalie Merchant on her solo albums, but with an even more classic clarity. This simple yet beautiful and emotive song really stands out on the album, and for fans planning to only download certain songs, Not Dead Inside should definitely make the playlist.
Heartbeat Serenade by Commonunion59 is a strong sophomore effort from the duo. A few tracks could be seen as forgettable by music fans who are not heavily into folk, but certain others have universal likeability. Links to hear streaming songs as well as where to buy Heartbeat Serenade when it is released on Feb. 11 are listed below in “Sources.”
Review by Layla Klamt