For nearly a decade, Lara Hope has been among the most visible and energetic mid-Hudson Valley scenesters, fronting the risqué heavy punk group Tiger Piss, the now-defunct rockabilly purists the Champtones, the dirt-floor, retro Gold Hope Duo and now the wide-ranging, Pan-Americana roots explorers Lara Hope and the Ark-Tones. They’re a savvy and versatile quartet featuring Hope on acoustic guitar and her signature gutsy vocals, upright bassist (and Gold Hope duo namesake) Matt “the Knife” Goldpaugh, clever guitarist Chris Heitzman and drummer Dave Tetrault.
Many of Hope’s previous recordings have a done a fine job of capturing the energy of her live performances and the chemistry of her road-tested combos, but 2014’s self-produced Luck Maker by Lara Hope and the Ark-Tones finds Hope and friends truly accepting the challenges of the recording studio and prevailing – with the help of engineer Adam Armstrong, whose name seems to be on about half of the CDs coming across my desk these days. Recorded at Dreamland, Luck Maker is an ambitious, elaborate and stylish bit of studiocraft that never loses contact with the live ensemble at its core.
There is something strangely Baroque and complex about this record, though it may take the listener a while to perceive it, as this is in most respects a reverent and traditional poly-roots undertaking. The styles referenced are many, but all consistent and familiar: the raw rockabilly of ‘Whiskey Pick,” the garage Latin of the extraordinary title track, the dark Southwestern narrative of “He’s Not the Devil” and various jump-blues and early R & B grooves. One indescribably groovy and dark waltz-type thing (“The Night Winter Turned to Spring”) and the vibrant, oddball and rocking cabaret standard “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” stretch the scope of the collection in the most delightful ways.
As the title suggests, Luck Maker’s songs often concern old magic and old myths, with a recurrent carpe diem theme that may reflect Hope’s, um, hope for this record and her implicit recognition that it is a landmark and next-level work for her. “It’s hard to write a song when you’re happy,” she sings on the title track, “and it’s hard to tell a joke when you’re sad/But good things don’t happen by accident/Even if it’s just pure luck you had/I’m a luck maker.” Meanwhile, the groove of the song skillfully shifts three or four times without ever losing its purpose and its raw grace, suggesting that this band has made much of its own musical luck through lots and lots of practice.
Hope’s ripping, muscular and thoroughly old-school voice has always seemed to come through a Victrola or some other archaic medium, though at moments one can hear traces of the bluesier side, and the ballsy register, of Fiona Apple. But now Hope really inhabits her inner retro self with a natural, unstylized ease, even as the exquisite arrangements surrounding her can be quite stylized and clever, enhanced by horns, strings, backup vocalists and occasional studio trickery.
Some retro acts reference old styles with a postmodern wink; others inhabit them as if the last 50 years had failed to transpire. On Luck Maker, Lara Hope and the Ark-Tones somehow manage to do both. Visit https://larahopeandtheark-tones.com for more information.