[6 January 2010]
There are throwbacks, and then there’s Frank Fairfield. Hey, everybody loves some kind of revival, and it’s fun to wrap up in musical nostalgia now and then. But if you’re into the garage-rock revival or the neo-soul movement or new-traditionalist country, for instance, you’re only harkening back to the 1960s. Frank Fairfield will see your 40-year throwback and raise you another 35. Fairfield plays solo spitting-image recreations of late-‘20s to early-‘30s field recordings of folk and blues music, sounding like he was caught and captured on wax cylinders somewhere in rural Appalachia. What’s more, Fairfield makes no attempt whatsoever to update the sound or the arrangements on his 11-song eponymous debut. Quite the opposite, in fact: Fairfield mimics everything exactly, from the bygone-era field-holler drawl to the grainy, muffled recording technique. It’s the musical equivalent of a tin-type photo, baffling in its attention to precise mimicry, sounding indistinguishable from the songs compiled by Harry Smith on the venerated Anthology of American Folk Music.
Which is all pretty bizarre. For one thing, Fairfield is only 26 years old. For another, Fairfield isn’t kidding around. This is no half-reverent, half-smirking parody. There are others who’ve done something similar—Baby Gramps is a bearded gnome of a fellow, looking chipped fresh from the mountain and putting on a time-traveling show up in the Northwest, but he does it with a wink and a knowing sense of humor. Even the great John Hartford, who dressed in dustbowl getups and obsessed in steamboat lore and tapped out his own rhythms while playing century-old fiddle tunes, displayed a modernist’s sense of irony. If Frank Fairfield, on the other hand, is playing a character, it’s a lifestyle commitment to a role not seen since Andy Kaufman. The guy is deadly serious in his Great Depression redux, a staid routine that makes for straight-faced, sunless readings of these mostly public-domain songs. It’s a nifty trick that he’s pulling off, but there’s not much fun to be had listening to the record.
Fairfield is the only musician on the album, accompanying himself on guitar, fiddle, or banjo. Merle Travis’s “Nine Pound Hammer” opens with a clatter of clawhammer banjo before Fairfield starts singing, and once he does, the effect is eerie. On one hand, one has to admire Fairfield for excavating a style and sound that is increasingly being forgotten, and he’s helping to keep that tradition alive as a walking, singing, picking Smithsonian artifact. On the other hand, why should one listen to Frank Fairfield affect these vocals, when Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mississippi John Hurt, original and authentic artists who actually were of those times, can be heard instead? The answer, of course, is that you can see Fairfield do it in person; he’s a deft intrumentalist and puts on a superior show, bringing his retro Silver Dollar City act to the stage, sitting in an old wooden chair and sawing on his fiddle held down on his forearm. However, as a studio album, particularly with the deliberately fuzzy recording method, Frank Fairfield is a remarkable simulation, but an exercise in redundant imitation nonetheless.