The old, weird America is long gone. Even those second-generation weirdoes channelling those haunted rags and bare boned folk ballads to a new audience of hepcats and droogs are dead or dying. Rest in peace Harry Smith, Richard Manual, Levon Helm, Rick Danko. Meanwhile Bobby Dylan readies an album of Frank Sinatra covers and The Basement Tapes box set shuffles into the light, its lo-fi conjurations – at once séance and prolepsis – carefully curated for the 21st century consumer.
But the thing about ghosts, see, is they never quite go away. They creep in under the door and through the open window. They reappear in dreams. They pace the unconscious. And sometimes a group of outsiders are just brave or crazed enough to mould these old traces into new forms, creating something simultaneously fresh and ancient, out of time, sun-bright but with shadows on the horizon, young as the greenwood and as old as the stars that look down upon it.
Mike and Cara Gangloff are the latest of these out-of-time voyagers. Mike is an old hand at this sort of exploration, having spent time wrestling banjo and violin in deep-dive pluckers Black Twig Pickers and country drone worshippers Pelt. He’s one of those artists with an ever-expanding discography – he put out a collaboration with Steve Gunn, Topeka AM at the start of the year as well as a brace of wax in 2013 – and on this latest work he’s joined by his wife, Cara, to create a suite of songs that are at once haunted and domestic, unworldly in their lack of studio polish yet sitting slap bang in a melting pot of traditional song styles.
Black Ribbon of Death, Silver Thread of Life forms the last part of an informal trilogy of deep folk improvisations that started with 2013’s Poplar Hollow and continued later that year with Melodies for a Savage Fix.
The record is a mix of instrumental pieces and unaccompanied – or almost unaccompanied – traditional tunes. On the non-vocal cuts, Cara’s shruti box adds a lovely swirling drone to Mike’s banjo, guitar and violins, evoking both motion and stasis and somehow combining the two in a timeless vortex. On Mulberry Raider, the violin swirls and jumps like leaves in an autumn wind threatening to spiral away but somehow anchored by the shruti’s unending moan. West India has a similar feel, the silvery sweeps and flourishes of the violin and the wheezing drone circling around in a refrain that could go on forever.
By contrast, Cherry River Line is full on lysergic freakiness, shruti drone giving the intro section a kind of slow motion chopped and screwed vibe before the tempo abruptly changes with a sprightly picking although drone gives it a hazy dreamlike feel, a jig from a dream, ringing down through the passageways of memory like Al Bowlly’s Midnight, The Stars, and You at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
The Gangloffs are wise enough to leaven all of this disorientating weirdness with some endearingly unvarnished vocal pieces. These are shorter, on the whole, renditions of old-time tunes like The Carter Family’s You’ve Got To Righten That Wrong (here parsed as Righten That Wrong), an acapella version of the traditional O’death (they take Charley Patton’s version as their point of departure) and that classic of Sacred Harp singing, David’ Lamentation.
Less successful is an attempt to merge the two music approaches of the album in its final track, Someone To Watch Over Me, in which the Gershwin’s deft melancholy is recast as an elastic raga. At nearly five minutes, it outstays its welcome.
Quibbles aside, this is a fine record. Its mongrel brew of old-timey-psych-drone-folk casts a lovely ray of hazy, woodsmoke-permeated sunshine through these drab December days. It opens up a cocoon in time and space that is resembles some long-forgotten utopian commune from the pages of a Thomas Pynchon novel, steadfastly rejecting the technocratic anomie of everyday late capitalism for the hope of some better, still unrealised, future.-- Pops Margree, We Need No Words