Waterdrawn from The Horse’s Ha seems like a good companion piece to Anais Mitchell’s 2012 Child Ballads. Most of the songs and the entire spirit of this project are drawn from the same well as those old Anglo-American ballads with their tales of star-crossed lovers, shipwrecks, spiritual journeys, magical animals and human interactions with a natural world that is often threatening.
The Horse’s Ha is Janet Bean, the Chicago singer-songwriter who is half of the pioneering alt-country band Freakwater (and one-third of Eleventh Dream Day) and multi-instrumentalist James Elkington, who lately has been playing guitar with Jon Langford’s Skull Orchard and drumming in Brokeback. He’s also released an album titled Avos of finger-style guitar duets with Nathan Salsburg, and recorded and toured with Laetitia Sadier (Stereolab), and more.
The songs on Waterdrawn feature lots of superb and at times intricate fingerpicking from Elkington, as accompaniment to the songs that are an intriguing blend of Bean’s soprano and Elkington’s dry baritone. They’re also accompanied by other guitars, violins and other strings, sometimes in quartet-type arrangements, and sometimes touches of accordion (or perhaps melodica) and steel guitar in country-folk arrangements.
But that doesn’t come near explaining what this music, these songs, are like. I mentioned Child ballads and the Anglo-American tradition. In the album’s publicity material, Bean and Elkington cite the influences of Shirley Collins and Davey Graham, as well as Donovan. So, the ’60s English folk revival to be sure, including both its joyous sense of creativity and the discovery of an old but vital art form. The fingerpicked guitar, the string arrangements, the melodies all sound right out of that era and tradition. The opening track “Conjured Caravan” seems to be an impressionistic journey through astral travel or some other kind of spiritual journey, and “Willing Hands” a navel-gazing parlor ballad with philosophic lyrics about life, desire and death.
But there’s a decidedly post-modern flavor to the lyrics on many of the songs. “Hidey Hole,” for example, is a jaunty little ditty with a dark underbelly in which Elkington’s and Bean’s dark humor starts to emerge. Is this song of a fleeing fugitive homage to or parody of Richard and Mimi Fariña? Perhaps a little of both, with the well-timed pause at the beginning of the third stanza and its sly reference to the ubiquitous ’60s “seize the day” philosophy:
To seize is not enough and you would gladly pay / The hands of stranglers to choke this coming day / [beat] Shed cod tears with the mourners at its wake / Then rest content and weary in the evening.
Aside: Can anyone tell me what cod tears might be? Is that just a term made up to fit the meter of the verse, or is it an actual colloquialism?
For a change of pace there’s the slow, spooky ballad “Contenders” in which Bean croons “I’m the fiercest little fighter of the small-mammal world … my courage has no match” over a sing-song accompaniment on guitar and mandolin. The chorus cycles through ever-darker and more jazzy chords, the two singing in harmony “Where are my contenders?” I’m going to guess the subject is a shrew, partly for the Shakespearean connection and partly based on what my wife, who studied small-mammal biology, has told me about the little creatures.
You can listen to “Contenders” here and see what you think:
It’s all a little bit like that. Folk songs that sound like lovely pastorals on the surface – the delicate acoustic instruments plucked and bowed and the singers’ oddly matched voices – but which hide dark undercurrents. Sometimes comically dark, like the salesman fantasizing about being a paratrooper in “Parachute Voluntary” or the shanty-singing, bawdily courting penguins in “Stony Valentine,” or just plain dark yet heroic like the Fairport-style epic “Bonesetter.” And I’ll be listening over and over to the title song, an orchestral, Celtic-tinged piece that oozes mystery.
Lots of singer-songwriter folk music is very plainspoken, everything spelled out in the lyrics. Fans of folk music that does retain some sense of mystery should definitely give *Waterdrawn* a spin. With layers upon layers, both musically and lyrically, this is definitely one that will grow on you. The Horse’s Ha is on Facebook if you’re looking for more.
(Fluff & Gravy, 2013)