Eli West,
The Both
(independent, 2016)

Over a lifetime, ever since drawn to it in my college days, I have heard more recordings of folk and related music than it's possible to quantify. It's entirely possible, too, that by now more has faded from memory than remains. One thing I'm certain of, though: I've never heard anything like The Both. It's what the slick of tongue label sui generis. (One of a kind if your tongue moves less readily.)

Eli West is a Seattle musician whom I know from his recordings with Cahalen Morrison (I reviewed their I'll Swing My Hammer with Both My Hands in this space on 26 April 2014). These are accomplished and distinctive albums, consisting mostly of Morrison's nicely crafted trad-folk-flavored originals. Since then, the two have gone their separate ways. When last I heard him, Morrison was doing country music, or something like it. West, on the other hand, was creating The Both, and here it is.

The title reflects West's dedication to two unalike men, his paternal and maternal grandfathers, and to his decision to ... well, this seems odd and no doubt is exactly that. The first six cuts are songs, only one a recent composition (Dori Freeman's "If I Could Make You My Own"), the others folk and country numbers familiar and obscure. The other six cuts are those songs revisited as spare, moody jazz instrumentals.

West accomplishes all this in some impressive company that includes the celebrated, folk-informed jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, bluegrass mandolinist John Reischman, the afore-mentioned Freeman (an acoustic, Virginia-based country singer-songwriter), the superb oldtime Appalachian duo Anna Roberts-Gevault and Elizabeth LaPrelle (who perform and record as Anna & Elizabeth), fiddler Christian Sedelmyer and bassist Ethan Jodziewicz.

The sensation these gifted persons convey is not of two trips to the same destination, that's for sure. It's more like being blind-sided by radically different entities that one would not have known co-existed within a single space. Rather than repeat what one has already heard, one hears the familiar translated into another melodic language, with its own emphases, accents and meanings, one with words, the other transcending their very necessity. It is not something one attempts without an abundance of creative imagination and the musical confidence to put into the world what one first heard in one's head (which pretty much describes, by the way, the process by which Bill Monroe invented bluegrass).

One might say that this is full -- it surely is that -- but not full-bodied. It's skeletal, as in not over-burdened with urgent instruments and busy voices and as in communicating a not quite earthly ambience, as if played and sung by ghosts adrift in a dimly lighted otherworld. In a way, each note and each word are at once weighted and fleet, carrying their own history and meaning as they drift down some lost highway. Like all true art it is not approached or engaged casually. And like all true art the rewards engagement provides are substantial.

Still, if you will be so kind as to indulge me in the inevitable picking of nits: Contrary to the claim The Both's notes lay forth, Woody Guthrie did not write "Lonesome Valley," which is a 19th-century spiritual first sung by both Euro- and African-Americans. Claude King wrote "Give Me Your Love & I'll Give You Mine," not George Shuffler and Vassar Clements. In his lifetime a country singer, songwriter and actor, King is forever associated with the monster 1963 crossover hit "Wolverton Mountain," which in my experience no one who was around then has ever forgotten, willingly or unwillingly. "Give Me Your Love" sounds like the product of 1850, so thickly sentimental that it should have been sung around the piano in an old-fashioned parlor in an antebellum American home. Needless to say, it is wonderful, and The Both's version will make you wish you'd been there.

music review by
Jerome Clark

30 April 2016

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new