Adorable South Florida folkies Raffa & Rainer chose the surprisingly edgy No Mercy moniker for their new album. It could've had something to do with the two long years it took to create the album or the heartache on display in some of the songs. So why did they choose such a badass phrase? According to vocalist Raffa Jo Harris: "We needed to make up for the fact that we're a folk duo. We're actually very hard-core at heart. [The title] gives us a little oomph."
Also giving Harris and guitarist Rainer Davies' new record a little oomph: more than 30 guest musicians. Almost all of the players were hand-picked from the University of Miami's music school, where Davies now teaches jazz guitar. The project began when Davies was still a UM student, and his classmates were eager to repay his many favors for them.
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"Everyone on the album plays in, like, six other bands with me," Davies says. His contributions to local acts include country-folk singer Jesse Jackson, eclectic singer/songwriter Rachel Goodrich, electro-pop duo Bridget + Luke, and experimental rockers Airship Rocketship. The recording sessions for No Mercy were by far the most populated of Raffa & Rainer's career, with plenty of the songs assembled with a large group in one room with one microphone. In the past, Harris generally began with the basic tune, and then Davies jazzed it up with his stylings, but adding additional instrumentation, improvised or arranged, required some assists from producer Nick Kruge (Van Gloria) and string-arranger Patrick Hart.
Raffa & Rainer's previous release, 2005's debut Stolen Coal, featured only Harris and Davies as a duo, on vocals and guitar, respectively. Their ten-year partnership began when they were in high school, and soon they were playing weekly gigs at Miami's now-departed Tree of Zion natural food restaurant. "It was too intimidating to play alone," Harris says. "That place was the hub of our universe for two years, right before Stolen Coal was done."
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In contrast to their stripped-down beginnings, the duo's No Mercy tunes are brought to life with swinging drums, blaring horns, playful marimba parts, and strings. The opening number, "North Carolina Boys," is a catchy jazz tune made all the more irresistible by the horn section and barbershop quartet providing backup vocals. "Umbrellas" follows with deep, spacey folk kept minimal with an acoustic guitar accompanied by glockenspiel and clarinet. Another cut, "A Little Bit," could be a Live From Folsom Prison outtake if it weren't for Raffa Harris, the flirty jazz fairy, singing in place of Johnny Cash.
Raffa & Rainer can't take 30 people on the road with them, but well-written songs can bend to fit the situation. Over two years of live shows the duo played while creating the record, they were flexible enough to rearrange depending on the players involved in the performance. This month, Raffa & Rainer play three full-band shows to celebrate the release of No Mercy: one at Lily Pad in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one at Rose Live Music in Brooklyn, and finally, March 20 at the Bubble in Fort Lauderdale. Each show will feature a different band. Now, that's pretty hard-core for an adorable folk duo.