John Wesley Harding's fascinating confluence of literature, music, and theater explores the nature of ye olde British folk songs with a mostly a cappella recording of grim standards and smart originals.
Ever been to Troy, New York? I have. So has Uncle Sam -- you know, the guy with the white beard, stern eyes, tall hat; the one who WANTS YOU? He lived there. But now the former industrial jewel in the Capital region of New York State is a bastion of crumbling mansions, awkwardly placed highways, and fast-food chains seemingly exclusive to it. Or so I thought. Acclaimed singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding assembled a vocal supergroup of sorts to record a unique album there, at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, known for its near-perfect acoustics. Songs of Misfortune is a selection of original and standard British folk material from Harding's 2005 novel Misfortune (credited to his real name, Wesley Stace), performed mostly a cappella. But the choice to record in Troy makes sense not only for the crystal clear acoustics and warm, natural reverb -- but also for the nature and character of the songs.
The quartet consists of Harding, country/jazz chanteuses Kelly Hogan and Nora O'Connor, and bass-blessed actor Brian Lohmann. In addition to carefully synchronized harmonies, the group employs perfect, professional voice instructor-approved diction to the songs, all of which makes it next to impossible to tell Harding's songs from tunes like "Lord Bateman" and "Lambkin". Far from the relaxed and loose recordings of these collaborators' own records, the Love Hall Tryst does everything up proper, lending madrigal-style authenticity to Leonard Cohen's "Joan of Arc (The Ballad of La Pucelle)", and Harding's "Do Not Fear the Dark". Every note is crisp and enunciated, and if nothing else, Songs of Misfortune is a great opportunity for those involved to demonstrate their well-rounded talents beyond the realm of popular music. But it's also a work of great craft and an adept tribute to the British folk songs Harding honors in his novel.
The label's synopsis of the novel is thus:
[Misfortune] chronicles the adventures of an abandoned baby boy adopted by wealthy Lord Loveall, who names him Rose in honor of his dead sister and raises him as a girl on his Love Hall estate. Dickensian complications ensue as Rose grows through adolescence and must cope with his true sexuality and the equally confusing and frequently brutal world around him.
One must assume that the brutal, Dickensian world in question involves a whole lot of murder. Anyone familiar with American folk murder ballads knows that the thread runs straight back to the Isles. They will also know not to be fooled, however lilting the melodies, or snuggly the harmonies; in a British folk song, chances are good that someone is getting whacked. The body count on this record alone is an unluckily apropos thirteen. The heroine of the traditional "Female Rambling Sailor" drowns in the briny deep, though beautifully so, as sung by Hogan and O'Connor. A baby is bled to death on a truncated version of the Childe ballad "Lambkin", where the Tryst alternates between forceful and whispered verses. Harding's arrangements are extremely conducive to storytelling, holding the listener's interest with intertwining melodies and parts assigned to represent different characters. In this respect, Songs of Misfortune is also a sort a theatrical production, a puppet show without puppets.
Ultimately, this album will be most resonant in context with the novel, though it does a fine job of selling it. An excerpt from the text accompanies each song in the liner notes, to remind or tempt the listener, accordingly. How do "The Lady Dressed in Green" and "Lord Lovel" dovetail with "The Sanguinary Butcher" and "Do Not Fear the Dark" in the narrative of our gender-bending protagonist Rose? The full impact of the work depends on recognizing it as a companion piece to another work, despite the spot-on execution by the Love Hall Tryst. However gorgeous the harmonies of "Shallow Brown" or jaunty the rhythm of "Jack in the Green", they must be more so after curling up with Harding's book.