Tim Eriksen,
Soul of the January Hills
(Appleseed, 2010)

Tim Eriksen, who sings like 200 years ago, puts the traditional back into traditional music, which in his approach means, for the greater part, the ballads and hymns of old New England. He doesn't dress them up much either. In fact, in Soul of the January Hills, his third solo record for Appleseed, he doesn't dress them up at all; it's just his unaccompanied voice, carrying on more austerely than ever.

Eriksen recorded this on a visit to Poland, and he did it all by himself, he says, in one hour. Even so, nothing sounds forced or rushed. This could happen only, of course, if he had been singing these songs for a long time (several are new readings of ones he recorded earlier), long enough to inhabit them and to embrace the darkness that pervades most. His voice and performance are such that he dares open with the 19th-century "As I Travel," clearly learned from Roscoe Holcomb (who called it "The Wandering Boy"), a towering figure among authentic rural tradition-carriers and a vocalist of legendarily terrifying power. The proximate subject is a lament for a dead mother, but it feels more like a declaration of the end of the world.

Light rarely shines on these hills. This is the deep-shadows ballad world of violent death and earthly suffering relieved only by the promise of eternal joy at the end of life's journey (the recurring metaphor here). A scholar and ethnomusicologist when not on stage or in recording studio, Eriksen seeks out less-known material or arcane variants of the familiar. "John Randolph" is not, as I presumed on first reading the title, about the Virginia political figure from the early American republic, but the Child-ballad character more usually known as "Lord Randal" who, poisoned by a vengeful lover, dies in agony. "Queen Jane" is not the grim ballad "The Death of Queen Jane," about bloody death in childbirth, but another grim ballad about rape and incest. "Two Babes," a version of the venerable "Down by the Greenwood Sidee-o," recounts a mother's murder of her small children. "Drowsy Sleeper" by another name is "Silver Dagger," and all who know their ballads know in whom that instrument ends plunged.

Somehow, nonetheless, Soul is not too depressing to listen to. The regular infusion of hymns -- though you have to listen to the words to understand they are hymns because the sacred and secular drew from the same well of melody in those days -- helps, naturally, but so does the unadorned beauty of Eriksen's voice. That voice also makes listening to 14 unaccompanied songs not at all the daunting prospect you would think. Eriksen not only commands the repertoire but renders it wholly accessible. And the improbably hopeful, up-tempo closing cut "Better Days Coming" -- whatever the preceding evidence might have led you to deduce to the contrary -- will usher you out the door in, rather incredibly, a happy frame of mind.

[ visit the artist's website ]

music review by
Jerome Clark

7 August 2010

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new