The New Old Folk
The sound of two people singing and playing acoustic guitars is one of the most traditional and potent combinations in music. The pure harmony of voices and strings can instill chills through the simplicity and immediacy of the efforts. Many people know this first hand, as the do-it-yourself nature of the process has inspired amateurs to duet and discover the joys of the creative endeavor. But as Ezra Pound once famously said, “I believe in every man knowing enough of music to play ‘God bless our home’ on the harmonium, but I do not believe in every man giving concerts and printing his sin”. Ergo, bad duet albums abound. It is cause for celebration when one transcends the ordinary dictates of its genre.
Therefore, let us praise Alela Diane and Alina Hardin’s six-song EP, Alela & Alina. (Be warned that the music is only available as a digital download or a 10-inch album. One cannot purchase the EP on compact disc.) The two women’s voices blend together beautifully and evoke the close singing one usually associates with sisters. They pick their guitars in rhythmic counterpoint to each other in a way that reveals a close connection of spirit. They don’t come across as virtuosos, but as talented friends in touch with each others’ inner selves.
Then there’s the material that is evenly divided between covers and originals. All six songs are wonderful compositions excellently performed. There’s not a clunker in the bunch. The performers limiting the release to such a small number of tracks makes the listener hunger for more. My guess is that most people will play the less than 25-minute long EP on repeat for extended pleasure.
The three covers include two well-known folk songs, “Maddy Grove” and “Bowling Green”. There are dozens of recordings of each of these tunes, and definitive versions have appeared on discs by such luminaries as Fairport Convention, Nic Jones, the Everly Brothers, the Weavers, and Mike Seeger. A person might think before hearing Alela and Alina’s rendition, one wouldn’t need to hear another. Nothing could be further from the truth. The two musicians make each of these two old songs fresh again through the power and beauty of their performances. The third cover is of Townes Van Zandt’s mordant “Rake”, about a fallen man about town. The duo performs the tale of the broken fellow with a deadpan expression that makes the objective truth of the horror sink in deep.
The original songs are in the traditional folk mode. The lyrics resemble the Child ballads of yore with their poetic imagery (e.g. “And shadows can fade if you cast them away \ tie them to this rusty chain dropping down to the rocky bottom”, “Poppies golden light shines from the east shines to the west”, etc.) and words of Romantic love. Their tales are filled with unfilled longings and repressed desire sung over a musical foundation of plucked and ringing guitars. Without foreknowledge that these three songs were new, one would never know and assume they were old ones a person hadn’t come across before.
Alela & Alina is not just one of the best folk albums of the year, but one of the best records of the year. The singing, playing, and material is all first rate. The music deserves high recommendation.