Below is a music review piece I wrote for NI’s “The Big List” in May. I’ve included Spotify links to the corresponding albums for your listening pleasure 🙂
Released back in 1952 by Folkways Records, what’s sometimes called “Harry Smith’s Anthology” became the jumping off point for the folk revival in New York in the 50s & 60s. Consisting of 6 albums recorded from 1927-32, the Anthology introduced the young Dylan, Pete Seeger and others to tracks that would become folk standards – John Henry Was A Desperate Little Man, Stackalee and John The Revelator are in their earliest forms on the Anthology. Dylan simply copied “Down on Penny’s Farm” when he wrote “Hard Times in New York Town”.
For all of its importance as a historical document, though, it’s the stories and emotions so clearly on display here that make the Anthology such a legendary compilation. “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room” is the sound of a community shaking off the drudgery of the long work-week and celebrating the prospect of a better life on Sunday morning. Clarence Ashley’s “House Carpenter” (another song directly lifted by Dylan) is a heart-breaking story of love unrequited, Ashley’s plaintive voice and sparse banjo playing drawing you in and setting the tone from the first note.
But as with any legendary recording, the Anthology has it’s own stories about how the recordings were made. Legend has it that Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded his cuts to one microphone in the carpet department of Macy’s department store in Amarillo, Texas. The carpeting provided excellent sound dampening and the close sound he wanted for his music.
The Anthology is one of the most important pillars at the root of all modern folk, blues and ultimately rock n’roll. Essential stuff, then.
If Harry Smith’s Anthology is a monument to folk songs that would be belted out on a front porch on Saturday evening – recordings that were more substance over style, then Field Music’s “Plumb” offers the perfect contrast.
Sunderland’s Peter & David Brewis have created an album of perfectly crafted and recorded indie pop songs, yes – songs of which Britt Daniel or Gruff Rhys would be more than proud – but every second of the 30 or so minutes of music on “Plumb” is so intricate and nuanced, that each listen is like a fresh listen. The structural complexity of the songs is absolutely fascinating – the whole thing sounds like a work of expert craftsmanship.
Which is all well and good, but these are still pop songs – songs about lonliness, materialism, and disconnection – “I want a different idea of what better can be that doesn’t involve having more useless shit” – all wrapped in tunes that will worm their way into your head until all of a sudden you’re humming the melody as you walk down the street. And more importantly, they’ll have you dancing your ass off (“A New Town” and “I Keep Thinking About A New Thing” are great examples).
At no point do Field Music let the odd time signatures, sudden changes in direction or strange instrumentation get in the way of the tune. Complexity and pop accessibility make this album one of my favourites of this yet-young year.