Releases like Tompkins Square’s Aimer et Perdre: To Love and to Lose Songs, 1917-1934 defy common wisdom, suggesting that recent reports of the CD’s death are vastly exaggerated. This set’s combination of a high song count, detailed and loving notes (which include lyric translations from the original French and Ukranian), and beautiful packaging make the case that the CD box is an ideal bearer of this music’s gifts. And its gifts are plentiful. A mélange of wedding marches, songster quips, courtship dances, streetcorner laments, Cajun tunes, fiddle breakdowns, and Old Time mountain ballads, Aimer et Perdre casts a wide net that pushes listeners towards the bayous of Acadiana, through to the Piedmont region, and on to Poland and the Ukraine via New York City and Chicago.
As a collection of tunes loosely centered on love and loss, Aimer et Pedre‘s most obvious counterpart feels like Baby, How Can It Be?: Songs of Love, Lust, and Contempt from the 1920s and 1930s, which came out last year on Dust to Digital. Yet the collection’s closest kin is probably Ian Nagoski’s 2011 release To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman Diaspora, 1916-1929, also released by Tompkins Square. Although these songs are rooted in the realities of romance and its discontents (“This is one from the heart,” the notes declaim), love and loss also double as effective metaphors for the promises and frustrations of migration and movement, an observation supported by the set’s introductory essay. Like To What Strange Place, Aimer et Perdre seeks to expand the parameters of American folk music, using the presence of some recognizable figures from the folk canon — The Carter Family, Dock Boggs, Richard “Rabbit” Brown, The Stoneman Family — as a hinge that binds a familiar cast of characters to a more expansive one containing unsung luminaries like Leo Solieau and Mosie Robin, the Francizek Dukli Wiejska Banda, and Breauz Freres. This is a move that effectively maps the overlapping sensibilities of Cajuns, hillbillies, and immigrants; and this collection, along with Nagoski’s work, presents a version of American folk music that recasts the country as a palimpsest of pathways — paths that lead in and out, up and down, across and back.
The brilliance of the music is matched by its visual presentation. One of the true heroes of the historical compilation album as practiced by Tompkins Square is designer Susan Archie, who gets a co-producer credit on Aimer et Perdre. (Her work also figures prominently on releases by Dust to Digital, Revenant, and Table of the Elements.) Unsurprisingly, the packaging on this release is sublime, rich in detail and heavy in concept, and like her work on landmarks like Revenant’s Charley Patton box, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues, or Dust to Digital’s Goodbye, Babylon, the visual material here makes listeners encounter the music with their ears up, a task that seems vital for a reissue producer. Archie’s work is complemented by a triptych of drawings from famed cartoonist R. Crumb that suggest a more muted, contemplative late style — it’s a perfect match for a batch of songs scaling the vagaries of love and loss.
As a curator, producer Chris King (who also worked on the Patton box) pulls off the rare feat of creating a concordance out of a widely diverse, culture-spanning raft of songs. He strikes a productive balance between the familiar and the obscure, creating a complex portrait that is funny, heartbreaking, lively, and morose — often all at once. This is a densely-layered, challenging collection full of rough gems and rich rewards. For a certain audience — adventurous listeners with sensibilities trained by the Harry Smith Anthology — this is surely as essential as any other release that will land this year.