The Hungry Monks
Superior Crust

Charleston’s Hungry Monks usually get pegged as a folk combo, but their new studio album demonstrates terrific versatility. Recorded at local musician Jim Donnelly’s Island Sounds studio on Johns Island, the 14-song collection skips comfortably from straightforward old-style country and waltzy Celtic folk to jazzy swing and rock ‘n’ roll.

The songwriting vocal duo of John Holenko (on acoustic guitar, mandolin, and banjo) and Hazel Ketchum (handling acoustic guitar, banjo, bodhran) — the core of the Hungry Monks — have obviously embraced the art of song craft. They have a knack for composing fine melodies, clever arrangements, and smart lyrical twists. Traditional song structure is something they both respect and tease.

Velvety smooth, balanced, and delicately textured with sparse string and wind instruments, Superior Crust might be the prettiest music to come out of Donnelly’s studio so far. A follow up to their 2004 disc, Organic Tangerines, it’s certainly one of the Monks’ finest efforts. Holenko’s technique on guitar and mandolin is so smooth, it makes his sophisticated melodies and hooks seem simple. Ketchum’s vocal range is almost as impressive as her expressive delivery.

Lead-off track “Moonshine Down,” a mid-tempo folk-pop tune with a melancholy touch, features a little bit of everything that works so well throughout the album: Ketchum’s silky voice, Holenko’s tasteful riffs, Donnelly’s crisp brush work, and a bit of extra pickin’ from guests (that’s Walter Biffle on three finger-style banjo).

Not all of Superior Crust relies on singing, through. The title track, one of several instrumentals, is a peppy Celtic/country theme song led by Holenko’s mandolin and guest Bob Culver’s handsomely executed fiddle.

During their more mellow moments, Ketchum and Holenko create sweet sentiments from three quietly strummed chords and only a few lyrical lines. At their most excited and upbeat, they bounce like a hot Western swing band. On “In Heaven,” Ketchum sings, “In heaven, all the fiddles play in tune/In heaven, it’s always the month of June.” Guest John Kennedy’s walking bassline is the only accompaniment on Ketchum’s “I Can’t Get Enough of You,” a romantic ditty featuring her sultry falsetto. Another guest player, Susan Conant, matches Holenko’s guitar line on the happy instrumental “Waltzing with Althea” note for note and accent for accent.

As the most rock ‘n’ roll song of the bunch, “Never Says No” is a feisty standout. In a gruffer “cheatin'” tone, Ketchum sings about three guitars (one Fender, one Gibson, and one Martin) as if they were three eager men in waiting. A fun rendition of the swingin’ “King Size Papa” (an old novelty song penned by Johnny Gomez and Paul Vance) finds Ketchum crooning about another amorous big boy. (