Dana & Susan Robinson,
American Hornpipe
(Threshold, 2012)

The nicely -- and appropriately -- titled American Hornpipe is the latest in Dana & Susan Robinson's exploration into traditional songs and tunes, along with originals and covers in that grain. No listener is likely to mistake them for any other act. The arrangements are unusual, definitely modern, but in a fashion that enhances older material rather than distracts from it, as if the Robinsons had reflected hard on the music's content and meaning and, rather than show off their creative gifts, used them to burrow deeper.

Dana's vocals sometimes have a knife-sharp, bluesy edge, employed to particularly telling effect in "Raleigh & Spencer," a rarely recorded song (sometimes called "Riley & Spencer") from the Southern tradition. If Dana doesn't sound ancient, he does sound sort of eternal, as if this testimony of a drunken rambler-gambler were meant as profound and enduring testament to needs that, if hardly noble, are undeniably urgent. It's a hypnotizing performance and, to my hearing, the album's most exquisite moment, but it's far from the only thing you'll want to listen to here.

Consider the extraordinary version of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." No, it's not the one you've heard hundreds of times, the one first issued by the Carter Family in the 1930s and later codified in rock-era culture in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's landmark three-LP release of the same name in 1972. A.P. Carter reworked it from a hymn written in 1907 by Charles H. Gabriel (music) and Ada R. Habershon (lyrics) to a different melody. The Robinsons revive the first "Circle," which is strikingly unlike Carter's. You know that the instant you hear the opening verse: "There are loved ones in their glory / Whose dear forms we oft-times miss...." Both the unexpected lyrics and the Robinsons's reading of them are riveting. I am a little disappointed, however, that they retain Carter's affirming "There's a better home awaiting," whereas Habershon had only a plaintive question, as if to drop a note of agnostic doubt into the discussion: "Is a better home awaiting?"

American Hornpipe is awash in pleasures: Susan's singing an unaccompanied "Fair & Tender Ladies," Dana's New England-inflected fiddle and mandolin, Eliot Wadopian's tone-perfect acoustic bass, River Guerguerian's iron-clad grasp of how to use percussion to accentuate folk music. And the songs, not least of them Florida cowboy poet Hank Mattson's (with Dana's tune) "When This Old Hat Was New," not to mention the opener "Who Killed Cock Robin?" with Susan's hardboiled-detective vocal and the unsettling ghost-of-Fairport-Convention arrangement.

This is not your standard-issue anything, least of all the singer-songerish, unrooted earwash that is often mischaracterized as "folk" these days. The Robinsons, who travel the international circuit winning critical raves in every port while remaining unfairly unfamous, wed old and new in happy musical marriage. If you've heard them, you know what I mean, and you'll want this new recording in your collection. If you don't know their music, well, you've been alerted, and while I can't tell you what to do, I hope you will proceed accordingly.

music review by
Jerome Clark

29 September 2012

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