Songs of Green Pheasant is an exercise in murkiness. A solo project from Duncan Sumpner, a 30-year-old artist/teacher from Sheffield, England, the album gently and quietly moves through a swamp of sound. Soft folk melodies and instrumentation are masked behind vacant spaces. You can hear the music echoing for miles between the barren banks of a brown-water river, building up steam and volume with each volley. Part of this atmosphere is likely intentional, but part of it is due to the homemade nature of the recording. Fat Cat Records took the original demo (a four-track job captured on cassette in Sumpner’s kitchen), removed some tape hiss, and kept the sparse sounds.
This is lo-fi music in the traditional sense. Instead of a band foregoing what’s available to make an artistic point (let’s say, the White Stripes sticking to analog when digital is easier and cheaper), Songs of Green Pheasant is lo-fi out of necessity. What’s interesting is that Fat Cat chose to keep the recordings in their original form instead of lacing them with fancy studio trickery and perfectly clear microphones. But it wouldn’t have the same charm if it were re-recorded. This is an album in which the mood is almost as important as the music.
Songs like “I Am Daylights” are aided by the atmosphere. Others, like “Nightfall”, become jumbled and too deliberate, with its freak-out instrumental ending that feels more tacked on than emotionally viable. “The Wraith of Loving” is a nice mix between straightforward melodies and sometimes unsettling rhythmic choices. The variety within the song bolsters the variety of noises closing in on you from every angle.
Nothing on the album can prepare you for the beauty and simplicity of “Until…” (It’s not a long title; it actually includes the ellipses). The comparisons to Iron and Wine are inevitable, especially with this song, but the groups are different. If you think of Iron and Wine as cornering the pop-folk market, then you can imagine Songs of Green Pheasant as the avant-garde version of folk music. On songs like “Until…”, the abstraction works wonders. Instead of hearing bluesy slide guitar, sweet female vocals, or harmonica, you hear white noise that’s just out of reach and droning notes that fail to offend, even though they sound as if they should. It all adds to the gloomy ambiance.
Other times, the songs become so intent on being different that they fail to impress on a much simpler, more melodic, level. The closer, “From Here to Somewhere Else”, follows this pattern by continuing on for minute after minute without really saying much of anything, other than, “Droning is nice and should be completed with utmost reverence and perpetuity.”
Songs of Green Pheasant is an album of a few excellent songs packaged in an intriguing, beguiling form. The remaining hiss and echoes never sound out of place, and that’s a testament to the focused songwriting of Sumpner.