The connections between various ethnic folk musics can be recognized by any musician or listener with an open set of ears or a ticket to travel. Drones from Balochistan, Pakistan, aren't so far away after all from a particularly meditative take on "Bonaparte's Retreat," unhurried and unaccompanied, the low D tuning suggesting all kinds of otherness as one bows several strings at once. There's a bagpipe nod, a wave to the Ravanhattha, a hello to the dombra. (I even recall playing West Virginia tunes on my banjo once during a Moroccan train ride, where I was told repeatedly how much what I was doing sounded like it was from that country.)
Then there's what the drones, especially those coming from Hindustani classical vocalists, have meant for American minimalists such as Lamonte Young or Terry Riley, who made their most radical musical statements half a century ago. Among their contemporaries was North Carolina native Henry Flynt, who saw honky-tonk country and Appalachian fiddle tunes as obvious jumping-off points for conscious avant-garde exploration. Though his recordings didn't start seeing the light of day until about 15 years ago, they date back to the early 1960s and show somebody who was considering not only other places for folk music to go, but a way to make minimalism less academic. It was Flynt, alongside the hilariously and righteously disrepectful Holy Modal Rounders, who truly embodied the term "acid folk." While Flynt was raw and meditative, the Rounders at their furthest-out were a barely functioning carnival, at times reverent, at others turning old-time fiddle tunes into disorienting glop.
All of this brings us to the Black Twig Pickers. First of all, two of the members, Mike Gangloff and Nathan Bowles, also perform with Pelt, an experimental drone and ambiance-based collective prone to letting recording environments become part of the mix. Meanwhile, the more recent addition Sally Anne Morgan, who's placed in fiddle contests and played stages at old-time festivals throughout the Southeast, naturally allows BTP to embody a few different scenes easily. Here's a group that, through its exploration of meter-less drone in one setting, and straight-up fiddle breakdowns in another, is ultimately able to see where the two converge. Those results are perfectly illustrated here, in the quartet's first collaboration with Brooklyn-based guitarist Steve Gunn. Gunn, whose own work both as a solo artist and in connection with drummer Steve Truscinski, guitarist Cian Nugent, and long-time avant folk lap steel player Mike Cooper, has hovered in territory near enough to traditional acoustic music for some time, which makes his connection to Black Twig Pickers seem natural (he's already recorded an album with Gangloff).
Seasonal Hire is neatly divided into halves. The first three tunes find the BTP leading the show with original composition "Dive for the Pearl," which involves the repetition of old-time, the right hand drive of Bowles' banjo, and Isak Howell's mouth harp blowing to the fore. Yet their version of the standard "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" is a fine example of how to unshackle old-time from the "old." After a suspended, drone-based fiddle introduction from Morgan, the band kicks into the melody, sounding as if they're playing in the darkest of caverns. The pulse is slow, deliberate, and foreboding. Morgan's "Cardinal 51" owes its existence to "Trouble in Mind," but there's something odd happening here. Bowles' struck bowed cymbal provides an undercurrent of danger, while Morgan's vocals seem to bounce off the walls behind the band. Here then is an expample of old-time music as experimental composition as natural as anything Flynt or the Rounders pulled off.
But then the album's penultimate and final tunes are where the Gunn/BTP connection finds its true footing. Gunn's "Trailways Ramble" has his vocals, which always seem like a natural extension of his guitar playing, while jaw and mouth harps, fiddle and banjo percolate under a single chord. But the centerpiece of this release, and the entirety of Side Two of the vinyl, is the full-on Gunn/Twigs collaboration that gives this release its title. Not unlike the recordings of psych-folk one-offs the Serpent Power's single-chord jams recorded for San Francisco's KPFA in 1970, Gunn and the Twigs develop a single-chord raga style. There's several minutes of tension before the tune unfolds, driven by Gunn's finger-picked open-tuned groove, a harmonium-like shruti box providing constant sustain, banjo, fiddle drone, gongs, and singing bowls. Here then is the Pelt influence, performed by a band as comfortable as it comes with Virginia-area old-time fiddle tunes, perfectly in sync with Gunn's minimal, modal direction. So, is this an old-time album? Arguably, it's as old-time as it gets, cruising through and then ultimately past the tunes themselves, discovering the original pulse that relates music from every region of the world, conjuring Rajasthan, Central Asian steppes, Tuareg lute players from Niger, and Sherman Hammons impressionism in equal measure.
-- Bruce Miller, Old-Time Herald