Appleseed APR 1023
Given my comments in the Davenport/Rakes review about "looking forward to the day when I would be able to review a recording by what might be termed a 'second generation' traditional performer on exactly the same terms as I use for the older ones", it was a surprise and a pleasure to come across another such release in the very same week!
Cordelia's Dad are an American four-piece band from Massachusetts who are probably better known for their very modern approach to 'folk music', than as performers of the old music in a more traditional way. That their breadth of vision was wider than that of most of their audiences' was made evident by consternation (and even walk-outs) during their last UK tour, and this may have been mirrored at home too, since they now use a different name for their rock band persona.
But on Spine they are firmly in traditional mode, without being narrow-minded about it, and everything here confirms my brief experience of hearing their Tim Erikson at The National in 1996 - they certainly know how to sing and play this music. Spine, in this instance, refers not to sharp, pointy things, but to backbone - and to the way in which it supports, shapes and strengthens that which overlays it. An analogy for the role of the tradition in any sort of modern music-making.
The CD's liner notes are heavily graphic and largely text-free, but they go to the trouble of making some extended notes available by post or at their website. A look at the latter revealed four full A4 pages of detailed notes on all the songs and tunes, including full source accreditation, and a lot of very intelligent and incisive comment on the material and performance, the traditional sources, their collectors, prompts to further reading - and life in general. They state that "These notes should answer some frequently asked questions [about the music], but, hopefully, not encourage the idea that you need to know a lot of facts in order to 'get it'." An admirable sentiment! Readers who'd like to have a look themselves can find Cordelia's Dad's website at: http//www.cordeliasdad.com I think this is a good way to overcome the space limitation inherent in the CD format booklet.
It's good to know that young Americans interested in the music are able to visit, and play or sing with, some of the surviving traditional performers - in the way some of us in the UK were able to in the formative '60s and '70s. I feel deeply for the young English musicians of today who have, for the most part, only recordings to refer to. Spine includes sets of tunes they've got directly from Clyde Davenport and Dwight Diller, and I know that these are by no means all the contacts they have. They are also not averse to tinkering with songs and tunes, even to the extent of putting together entirely new tunes to a couple of the songs on the record. The only relevant question to ask about this is "Do they sit comfortably with the words, the style and the rest of the repertoire?" To my ears, the answer has to be yes. Only the band will be able to give the definitive answer - and not for about twenty years.
One of the impressive things about this record is that it doesn't sound as if it's trying to be impressive. Too many young bands, excited by this 'new' music they've discovered (and particularly by its potential for dramatic and emotional expression) tend to go over the top with technical virtuosity and studio effects - smothering the very things they found so appealing in gloss and ardency. Here, on the other hand, the overall feeling is one of calm, with more than a hint of brooding darkness behind it. Listen to Cathy Oss on Knife (sound clip) - a far cry from the raffish treatment of a very similar text I heard from Bill Whiting of Longcot, Oxon, some 25 years ago.
The playing, throughout, is noticeably restrained - thoughtful almost - though flashes here and there make it clear that the band can do the clever stuff when they feel it's needed. Perhaps the only example of overt virtuosity occurs in Le Reel a Neuf set from Quebecois fiddler Louis Boudreault. Here, a very impressive bit of frame drum playing pushes the tune from centre-stage at times, and will probably become annoying after repeated listening - but this is one small fault in almost an hour of music.
Tim Erikson is not only an impressive singer, but a fine one too, and his version of Three Babes (AKA The Cruel Mother) is probably the CD's most memorable track at first hearing (sound clip). He's also a damned good banjo player, without seeing the need to be flashy, and works beautifully with fiddler Laura Risk on Dwight Diller's Abe's Retreat (sound clip), and elsewhere.
There's too much here which is good to give a detailed appraisal of it all, but I'd like to conclude with a mention of a couple of the religious songs on the record - another way in which Spine marks itself as an unusual contender in a market aimed primarily at the younger listener. Pilgrim is "a depiction of a soul homesick for heaven", and is of English origin. Erikson and Oss (I think) make a great job of it, spinning out the long, slow tune with care, style and good dynamics (sound clip - sorry it's a big file, but less than a complete verse would be ridiculous). The record ends with Return Again, a shape-note Sacred Harp hymn with the whole band singing to fiddle back-up (sound clip) - and a fine way to finish it is too!
Rod Stradling - 6.6.98
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