Some people just weren’t born for these times. Some people were. Then there are those who could have been born 150 years ago, but part of their purpose here is to remind us that we’re all a part of history, that the love and war we experience is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Tim Eriksen’s second solo recording, Every Sound Below, features a couple of literal icebergs on the front cover. On the back is a shot of a spirit-like Eriksen double-exposed over a house-interior with wooden floors and ivy-covered walls. The music on Every Sound Below is a stunning mixture of traditional hymns, songs from the American Civil War, and Eriksen’s own compositions. The title track even features the lyric “Haunted is an easy word for all these moons / And every sound below”. A ghost is born, indeed.
You may have heard of Tim Eriksen from his trad/folk/rock outfit Cordelia’s Dad. Or you may know him from the soundtrack to 2003’s Cold Mountain. But did you know that Tim is also (from his bio), a “Sacred Harp tenor, singer of Bosnian popular and traditional music, saraswati vina player in the Karaikudi tradition, hardcore punk guitarist and singer, and an occasional music professor, among many other things? Take that, Sting! This guy is no slouch. Every Sound Below was recorded monophonic and live with no overdubs. Don’t be fooled by the seeming simplicity of one man playing live into a microphone. This album demands and rewards your attention. When you hear the fiddle on “The Southern Girl’s Reply” saw back and forth underneath Eriksen’s sonorous hurrahs, know that he’s doing both at the same time. That whistle riding atop the droning section of “John Colby’s Hymn” is also Eriksen, singing a series of harmonic notes over his other vocal at the same time.
An ethnomusicologist and skilled song-hunter, Eriksen brings to life several songs that have lay dormant in hymnals or been lost to time. “The Soldier’s Return” was found in an old violin primer from 1840, and is performed as an instrumental here, with what Eriksen self-deprecatingly calls “questionable fiddling.” Eriksen’s notes on each song are eloquent and detailed, drawing connections across time between the origins of the music and his own recording. “Occum’s Carol (O Sight of Anguish)”, sung a cappella on Every Sound Below, is traced back to 1774. Eriksen writes that “the only people I know who still sing any of Occum’s hymns are members of the Lee family, Sacred Harp singer friends from around the Okefenoke.” The carol is well-represented here by Eriksen’s honest warble. His voice is perfectly malleable for the wide range of material here, strident on one song and smooth as cream the next.
Eriksen knows restraint, and how to approach each song for what it requires. “Careless Love” is gentle and plain-sung, accompanied by rippling finger-picked guitar. The brief original which opens the album, “The Stars Their Match”, demonstrates impressive range and control as the melody swoops and soars. But Eriksen doesn’t sing simply to impress you with technique. Each nuance in his voice colors a specific moment for a distinct purpose and effect. On “John Colby’s Hymn”, Eriksen uses harmonic, overtone singing influenced by the music of central Asia, particularly the Tuvan throat singing group Huun Huur Tu. The technique involves droning vowel shapes that when sung correctly, produce a second, harmonic note several octaves higher, allowing one person to sing two notes at once. Eriksen, who occasionally leads workshops on overtone singing, not only hits those harmonic notes, but shapes them in a pattern similar to the verse melody. The effect is astounding, but again it’s not about showing off. Tuvan culture is centered around horses in a way similar to that of American cowboys. As Eriksen envisions John Colby while riding on horseback, “hoofbeats providing the rhythm”, the connection is clear; the harmonics sound natural when incorporated into the hymn.
The rest of the album is just as rich, from the pair of Civil War tunes at the beginning (“The Southern Girl’s Reply”, “The Cumberland and the Merrimac”), to banjo instrumental “Bassett Creek”, and Eriksen’s own “A Tiny Crown”. On paper, “A Tiny Crown” wouldn’t seem to fit with the rest of the album, as Eriksen sings about sea monkeys over dissonant chords with non-traditional melodies. But strangely enough, it works. Eriksen’s original material flows seamlessly with the other hymns and ballads, culminating in the gorgeous, lonesome “Every Sound Below”, which closes the album. That fact is further testament to Eriksen’s gift for bridging ages, cultures, and styles with skill and invention. After living with Every Sound Below for awhile, I am eager to hear and learn more.