PITCHFORK 8.5, Grayson Currin
The Band-- the self-titled second album from four Canadians and an Arkansas drummer unfortunately known best for backing Bob Dylan and hosting The Last Waltz-- was released September 22, 1969. Just three weeks had passed since an American Army officer was charged with premeditated murder in the My Lai Massacre. In six weeks, Richard Nixon would ask the nation to support his policies in Vietnam. The bluegrass-based soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? was released December 5, 2000, one month after the election of George W. Bush and 10 months before the September 11 terrorist attacks. The record sold six million records after September 2001, compared to only two million before it.
Just as Greil Marcus has long suggested that the Band's shambling Americana offered shelter from 1969 storm, Pitchfork critic Amanda Petrusich intimates similar fuel for the O Brother explosion in her second book, It Still Moves: "It seems inevitable that a film soundtrack packed tight with ancient American folk songs would soar to the top of the pop charts in a year when nearly everything 'American' was being challenged." Indeed, in the face of crisis, people often revert to the basics. Seeking an old, familiar sound seems as natural as asking parental advice or eating comfort food. The trouble, though, is moving on: Second-rate roots-rockers like the Eagles were the 1970s equivalent of fat 'n' happy, and most anybody picking political bones and a flattop guitar these days warrants an NPR feature.
From the Great American Songbook, the follow-up to last year's mostly perfect debut collaboration between California multi-instrumentalists Christian Kiefer and Tom Carter, doesn't suffer the recent or ancient past as much as it does mine it, steering the old gaze forward with erudite, imaginative recastings of eight stateside standards. That is, Kiefer and Carter embrace history. Then they advance it.
You may recognize Carter's name from his work in Charalambides, his guitar-duo-plus with ex-wife Christina. They've long adorned simple melodies with serpentine passages and spectral textures. With units like Mudsuckers and in recent collaborations with percussionist Robert Horton, he's explored progressively dense drones and long-form improvisations. Kiefer, on the other hand, earned his doctorate in American literature last year and plays what Harp once called "post-folk"-- sturdy singer-songwriter fare with surprising flourishes and misdirections. Songbook pushes all of those tendencies-- power hum, snaking string duets, high learning, post-everything-- into extreme territory: A sonically and conceptually liberal "folk" album, Songbook amps rich source material with a union of mighty drones and dissonant skree, clawhammer banjo picking and ragged old sangin'. Check the technique, too: Kiefer recorded the duo's improvisations around songs ranging from "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" to the Scott Joplin rag "The Entertainer", then recruited friends like Califone's Ben Massarella to add their own contributions remotely. In essence, he added overdubs to improvisations on songs sometimes more than a century old. Kiefer and Carter then invited eight other musicians-- from microtonal maestro Tony Conrad to Japanese improviser Tetuzi Akiyama-- to write about one track. Appropriately, the excellent Australian label, Preservation Music, released this multimedia retooling of American cultural grails.
The results are as intriguing as they are varied: Four of the eight tracks are steadfast instrumental exercises, taking originals like "Hard Times Killing Floor Blues" and "Jesse James" and stretching certain motifs or sections. "The Coo-Coo Bird" moans its songs with electric slide guitars, slow and mournful and eerie. The album's other half bends familiar pieces into alien voices, though: "Pretty Polly", a murder ballad about a boy who walked his love to her shallow grave, is haunting and damaged here, guitar noise flooding Kiefer's singing like the sinister electricity that filled the air that night so many years ago. Only the basic piano line remains for Joplin's "The Entertainer", which becomes either the soundtrack to a carousel spinning off its axis or the perception of a music box through acid-altered ears.
Still, it's the duo's 12-minute variation on "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" that takes the grandest aims here. Save a sense of chord changes, the duo lifted very little musically from the pre-Depression Carter Family tune, which essentially reconfigured an old gospel number and made it a hit. Played with a pump organ, an E-bow applied to an electric guitar, and drums, Songbook's version swells into a monolithic, top-heavy drone that's wobbling by the six-minute mark. Kiefer improvises on the keys, inducing arrhythmia and atonality. Things converge on the other side, though, culminating as a musical manifestation of that old lyrical axiom about death and reunion and eternal life. After all, last year marked the 100th anniversary of the song's copyright. And here, alongside seven other classics you probably know just from living life, it's been reborn with bright and bold ideas, not nostalgia and mawkishness. Periodic revolution is as important to music as it is to politics: Especially in troubled times, bless anyone handling a sacrosanct songbook with such vigor and vision.
released January 1, 2008
Produced by Christian Kiefer. Performed by Tom Carter and Christian Kiefer with Ben Massarella, Scott Leftridge, and Chip Conrad.
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