Here’s a fine country music album coming from an unlikely player in popular music history: an alumni of the underrated post-punk group Band of Susans. Karen Haglof’s debut solo album Western Holiday is, like so much of so-called alt-country, a work of lyrical maturity and charm. However, the album has seemed so far to have slipped under the radar of much of the music press, so I am glad that it was forwarded to me, and that I had the opportunity to give it a listen.
After a brief stint in the noisy and hard-to-classify Band of Susans, Haglof departed from the music business altogether for medical school. She has returned, as far as I can guess, purely out of love for the music.
Western Holiday is good-times music, for the most part. In this way, it’s sort of old-fashioned, I suppose. I can hardly imagine the melancholy of Iris Dement sounding at home in a typical honky-tonk joint, but Western Holiday is something that meets the level of quality of a record by, say, Dement or Mary Gauthier, yet seems more appropriate for the good times than the sad. Records like this are something of an anachronism, and they seem to conjure up visions of the older, somewhat simpler times when they were more common. The songwriting is mostly cheerful, with no tales of woe or short-stories about loner cowboys and cowgirls in sight. Tunes like “Dog in the Yard” and “Won’t Wake up To You” are brash and confident– Karen doesn’t take crap from anybody.
The most interesting track by far, though, is the one sighing aside, “Don’t Straddle Fences,” the one track that seems to vaguely hint at Haglof’s musical past. I’m reminded of all the times when The Mekons and Doll by Doll mixed up their murky rock tunes with the faint influence of American country music. Of course, the kinds of crowds who go for music at this point in the road are really a pretty specific niche. In any case, Karen Haglof joins the ranks of Willard Grant Conspiracy and The Walkabouts as one of the coolest artists to arrive at the intersection point of rock and country.
Gareth Dickson’s newest release The Invisible String, a collection of live recordings, could serve as an excellent introduction to those curious about the Scottish songwriter’s work. Dickson’s trade is to craft relatively simple finger-picking pieces transformed through reverb and delay pedals to create an eerie, wintry echo-chamber– in a sense, this is folk-music for a somewhat specific audience.
It cannot be denied that Dickson’s strongest influence is Nick Drake. But would even Nick Drake craft music that’s as impossibly delicate as this? These are not straightforward folk-songs, they are folk-songs that have been saturated and blurred to the point of becoming little planetariums of arpeggios and Dickson’s almost-whispered vocals. Dickson betrays himself, to interesting affect, as perhaps more of an ambient musician than someone interested in self-expression through lyricism. Because this is music that is more about a feeling that is conjured by a certain sonic atmosphere, Dickson’s lyrics are repetitive. This is not to say that his songs lack depth, but rather that as a lyricist he is somewhat reticent and that he fills in the wordless spaces in his songs with atmosphere. Also, when I say that Dickson creates folk-music for a somewhat specific audience, I mean that he is bridging the barrier between “mood” music and “expression” music, and I have a feeling that because of this, he might be more appreciated and understood by enthusiasts of ambient and electroacoustic music.
Dickson’s finest moment both as a songwriter and crafter of soundscapes might be the dramatic and slightly unsettling “Jonah”. The haunting final refrain, “I will love you forever” (God threatening Jonah with His love? Jonah finally surrendering to God? It is not clear.) will leave your hairs standing on end.
This is a fine sampling of Dickson’s work, and it comes highly recommended to those who have not had a chance to look into him so far.
One Day We’ll Find the Valley is Oakland musician Andrew Weathers’s undertaking to transform hymns from the Sacred Harp Hymnal using modern instrumentation and production. Weathers performs virtually all of the album himself, though John Weathers and Janie Benson provide additional vocals. The album is, according to Weathers, part of a bigger, career-long project to play around with the idea of reinventing American folk music. Weathers has been influenced mostly by American minimalist composers and noise, and has a BM in Music Composition and an MFA in Electronic Music, but this album isn’t exactly dry or intensive-listening stuff.
For the most part, the album comes on like a whirlwind of tinny, crackling electronica and disembodied voices– the album has a light tone. The compositions float and blur, with little organic touches lighting up the sonic palette, and making the connection to the past clearer. Though the album is sort of disjointed, like a very rushed tour of the sonic museum Weathers wants to show us, it is, at the very least, a very pretty example of how elecroacoustic music can be employed to attempt to reinvent music from the past. The voices on One Day We’ll Find the Valley sound slowed-down and distant– is there any more intuitive way of trying to electrically reinterpret music from the past than by amplifying and distancing it, to increase its romantic aura?
The greatest success of the whole undertaking is “To Die No More”, an electroacoustic adaptation of the 18th century hymn “Why should we start and fear to die?” Weathers’ decision to autotune his voice gives the morbid joyousness of Isaac Watts’s lyrics a haunting afterglow. It’s a short piece, but it strongly colored my impression of the rest of this album.
Almost equally impressive is the closer, “We’ll Meet Beyond the Grave”. One has to hand it to Weathers for turning a hymn into something that starts out sounding like Berlin School electronic music before melting into a heavenly refrain from an organ-like synth. I can picture these pieces perfectly in my head as the soundtrack to a Terence Malick film.
This is an imaginatively conceived project with many moments of beauty, and it comes highly recommended to all fans of electo-acoustic and ambient music. I imagine also that this will hold some special amount of interest for musicologists who check it out, though laypeople will no doubt also see what Andrew is aiming for. Here is the bandcamp page from my buddies at Lifelike Family, where you can buy either a download or a physical copy of the album.