The Love Hall Tryst, |
Songs of Misfortune
There is no particular reason the Love Hall Tryst should sound like the Young Tradition, the Watersons, Waterson:Carthy or the Voice Squad, but that's how many of us are used to hearing English folk-harmony singing. The four Trysts -- two men, two women -- lack the vocal depth of the just-mentioned. Still, they do all right. You'd have to be truly incompetent or stupid, I should think, to mess up these magnificent old ballads. Well, mostly old ballads. There's also Leonard Cohen's "Joan of Arc," rendered as if laden with the dust of centuries. And a few have recently composed, albeit antiquely textured, lyrics or melodies (seldom both).
The Trysts have no roots, deep ones or even shallow ones, in the British revival. Only Wesley Stace, whose project this really is, calls England home. Under the merry stage name John Wesley Harding ("the bastard son of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez") he has issued recordings as a pop-rock singer-songwriter, plus one CD of traditional songs (a tribute to the still living but sadly long inactive Nic Jones, Trad Arr Jones). As Wesley Stace he is the author of a well-reviewed -- though so far unread by me -- historical novel Misfortune (Little, Brown, 2005). Set in 19th-century Britain, it is littered with references to ballads, and so Songs of Misfortune has a title that is literally true on two levels.
Stace brought two Chicago-based artists and friends, Kelly Hogan and Nora O'Connor, into the operation, along with actor-singer Brian Lohmann from Los Angeles. Hogan and O'Connor are active in the Windy City's alt.country community. If none of these three is a folk singer in her/his day job or sounds much like the product of years of immersion in the tradition, well, it's still nice to have them. It's also refreshing to hear unexpected approaches, as happens when the performers come to the material via a less-traveled road. The results are uniformly pleasant and sometimes -- as in the infectious "Jack in the Green" and the very sad "Shallow Brown" -- more.
Most of the songs are sung mostly unaccompanied, and they're thoughtfully selected. None, too, is tediously familiar, though if your tastes run to this sort of stuff, you're going to recognize them in a general way (for example, "The Lady Dressed in Green" as a version of "The Cruel Mother"). Stace/Harding's "The Abandoned Baby" is a dead-on imitation-traditional ballad -- a feat harder than it sounds. (As a modestly successful songwriter myself, I've tried it, and if nothing else, it forces you to appreciate how much more subtly traditional songs tell their stories than you'd think.) My only problem is that sometimes the harmonies come across as too light and too bright for the dark subject matter, never a problem with the Watersons and the rest. There's no problem, in other words, that a Norma Waterson vocal couldn't fix, though I suspect that one of Stace's intentions was for nobody to sound like Norma Waterson. In that regard he surely succeeds.
The last two cuts are set, satisfyingly, to Fairport Convention-style electric-folk arrangements.