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American Winter

Brian Harnetty

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Album Review

Chicago's Atavistic Records is well-known for its Unheard Music Series coordinated by John Corbett, as well as being the label of the Vandermark 5, the wild Out Trios series, and other bits of necessary forward-thinking musical ephemera from past and present. It is not, however, recognized for issuing field recordings of all-but-unknown American culture. Brian Harnetty, a Fellow of the Berea College Sound Archives in Kentucky, has assembled one of the most obsessive collections of field recordings from the Appalachian region from that very place, weaving them into what amounts to a 17-"movement" composition that is steeped in ghost trickery. This massive sound archive was the source, along with the help and permission of some of the original song, radio commercial, and dialogue collectors who contribute to both the library and this offering. Don't look for Alan Lomax-type songs and stories here. That's not at all what this is about; in fact, listening to this sounds like eavesdropping on an alien planet. What begins with an old woman trying to remember the old folk song "The Night Is Quite Advancing" becomes a brief radio commercial and then morphs into essentially the same song with different words in "I'll Cross the Briny Ocean." Along the way, Harnetty and his sonic co-conspirators add some double-tracking to twin the piano or a guitar phrase, spoken stories and allegories emerge only to dissolve into a duet of older women singing a folk song that is accompanied by someone from another of these field recordings playing a strange, jumpy, nearly ragtime song on an out-of-tune piano, and the story continues. On and on it goes for 48 minutes and change, never repeating, always moving, yet always standing stock-still. Songs and stories often intertwine, creating a much larger allegory from the ether — as in the case of "I'll Have to Go Off and Be Gone Tonight," where a toy piano and a pair of women singing about running away and eloping are juxtaposed against and then placed on top of an old man relating a story of a man who murdered his wife after a bad dream.

Brief interludes, like a yodeling radio duet of "Last Night as I Lay on the Prairie," slip into more commercials and public service announcements and reportage of a conscription lottery, slipping in and out of a piano playing some primitive melody on its lower keys, interspersed by disembodied fragments of sung voices and bells, crowd sounds, and an announcement for a draft lottery introduction by the President that never comes. "That Drunkard's Dream" and more toy pianos are punctuated by a single looped banjo, and by ten or 12 minutes in you are gone, off into some world you may be unfamiliar with except as the stuff of legend, and yet are drawn to compulsively. Field hollers, gospel songs, and American farmers prattling — it all becomes part of an aural tapestry that speaks louder than all the officially released Lomax documents for having been woven into a fabric rather than categorized and separated by date, time, place, person, and what is happening exactly. It just is. It was, but it is, here, now, yet forever out of time and place. Guaranteed to piss off most stuffy "folk music" purists, this is the ultimate folk music, as it borrows from sources it may know or may not but is not divulging except to present them as a living document. The gospel songs in "Soon We'll Reach the Starry Sky" sound like they were recorded by two or three different original sources all spliced together with odd elements like a droning accordion key (or perhaps it's a harmonium), bells, and more; finally, a man who sounds so old he could have been Methuselah is in dialogue with some broke store patrons, saying "We'll look for ya if we come back..." with the great American huckster's truth actually spoken as sincere surprise — in an exclamation of shock and bitter truth that brings the entire thing back to its beginning and raises the questions of who, what, where, how, and when all over again (but in vain, because this is secret history meant to be offered so as to create a greater secret by its revelation).

And seemingly, just as you are about to enter another rabbit hole of curiosity and entranced, rapt attention: silence. In it you can realize how that last line (which won't be given away here) folds not only the recording, but all of that history, back in on itself all the way back to its lips, into the throat and belly trying to come back out until it disappears into its own mouth, hidden, obfuscated, but ever present resonating in the empty spaces and open-air echoing in the space of moments, decades, centuries. This is a new kind of transmission, one that begs far more questions that it could — or even want to — answer, keeping these names and faces eternal yet as anonymous as the land they were swallowed into by the grave. Brilliant, maddening, addictive: this is the kind of stuff Nurse with Wound's Stephen Stapleton lived for back when he was creating his big obscure music list — and he should add this — and other sound hunters would give anything to have created. That it was sanctioned by the Berea College Sound Archives is even more remarkable. Harnetty has proved that one way to preserve history is to weave it into the moment and let it vanish in our midst while echoing forever its truths, aphorisms, superstitions, and lies.

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