Various Artists: Wayfaring Strangers: Lonesome Heroes

[13 January 2010]

By Cody Miller

The third installment in the Wayfaring Strangers series is perhaps the most accomplished so far. This go-round finds the collection focusing on the masculine voice of 1970s folk without picking too obvious tunes or selecting only songs that would appeal to a hipster-like demographic. Where the first two sets, Ladies From The Canyon and Guitar Soli, sometimes felt heavy-handed or like they were trying to hard for some type of indie-cred, this set aims for artistic clarity, without worrying about who will or won’t enjoy or endorse it. Even the name of this collection, Lonesome Heroes, is completely appropriate. Each song aches with isolation in one form or another. Rarely does a song feel out of place. 

While most of the songs merit their own individual accolades, some do hold up with more precession than others, especially when juxtaposed next to each other. Jim Schoenfeld’s opening number “Before” practically bleeds with each passing note from his ethereal, airy and fleeting voice. His lyrics rise with tension and rarely does that friction get solved lyrically. Instead he uses his voice to guide the song. The instrumentation of “Before” is certainly bare, even for folk standards, but the vocal delivery from the artists is nothing if not lush and rich.

Tucker Zimmerman’s “No Love Lost” gallops with the brevity and lost chances of the most heart-wrenching country songs. “I made a mistake / and that’s sometimes hard to say” rings with pure honesty, especially when Zimmerman nails the message home with his gut-churning set of pipes. Jim Ransom’s “It’s So Profound” recalls Dylan at his most folk-like, except Ransom has a more appealing and attractive voice. The sweetness of Ransom’s voice may lack the fire of Dylan’s rasp, but the complacent, subtle imagery of “It’s So Profound” is enhanced by what Ransom sings.

“Little Children” is a quiet meditation that never ventures into the juvenile, thanks to the capable delivery from George Cromarty. Jay Bolotin’s “Dear Father” is a completely different beast. Backed by an urgent set of guitar chords and restless melody, Bolotin takes on religion, patriarchal dominance and betrayal with venom, sting and genuine pain.

Despite the obviousness of the “lonesome heroes” theme, the album is tied together as well by the singers’ emotional deliveries. There may be a difference in tone between Roger Lewis’ “Autumn” and Tim Ward’s “Good Mourning”, but both find each singer at an all-time emotional high. Lewis rarely tackles a line in the way Ward goes for the upper cut, but both men pack wallops in their sentiments.

“O’Light”, with its muted strings and soft woodwinds, makes for a warm and even happy closer to a rather stark collection. It gives the album a sense of hope that seemed lost when the collection opened,  with “Before”. Lonesome Heroes does a superb job highlighting the emotional and breadth and complexity of folk music in one of its primal forms, without ever coming off as showy or trying to impress a certain crowd. The collection may not be perfect, but it’s a phenomenal starting point for digging up the catalogue of many of these folk heroes, who, for most of their careers were lonesome.

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