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House And LandHouse And Land
Album: House And Land
Label: Thrill Jockey
Tracks: 10

House And Land is a duo comprising Sally Anne Morgan and Sarah Louise Henson, whose debut offering is an album of traditional song. Sally’s the fiddle player with Virginia old-time string band The Black Twig Pickers, and she and Sarah first met when Sarah opened for one of the quartet’s gigs, they got talking and discovered a common interest in the same very specific forms of traditional music, especially those from the Appalachian vocal heritage. The main clue to their musical approach, however, lies in their shared love of modern, experimental and minimal music. For key features of their duo sound are modal harmony, microtonality and the use of drones – notably the nature-based drone style which feeds directly into contemporary classical music by composers like John Luther Adams and can sometimes invoke a trance state. The stark, yet surprisingly full-toned instrumental backing consists of Sally’s fiddle and banjo and Sarah’s 12-string guitar and bouzouki (the latter sounding uncannily like an Appalachian dulcimer), with both sharing shruti box duty; some songs also use the services of improv-style percussionist Thom Nguyen.

Intrigued? You should be! Enthralled? You bet! In spite of the modernist and laid-back, detached overtone that the adoption of minimalism might normally betoken, the ladies’ performances are primal, hand-hewn, archaic, energy-fuelled and passion-filled. And intense. Described as “naturalistic and entirely modern”, the music of House And Land bears testament to the continued, ongoing significance of the traditional songs. Even though this “living music” is constantly being rearranged by contemporary performers, Sally and Sarah sing these ancient ballads and hymns in the time-honoured ancient way, like they’ve been steeped in the tradition since birth, conjuring a spellbinding, pindrop atmosphere that fair sends shivers down the spine yet at the same time is (paradoxically) tremendously comforting. Sort of akin to mystic psych-folk perhaps. Yet in a way (but only in a way), I might be tempted to compare the experience of House And Land to the effect those landmark Shirley & Dolly Collins records like Love, Death & The Lady had on me, but (at the risk of sounding unfair) the difference lies in the degree of cool, for the purity of the Collins sisters might be considered more rarefied in their archaism, albeit only apparently less overtly emotionally involved than Sally and Sarah come across. The raw charge of Cordelia’s Dad is at times probably a closer and more obviously meaningful approximation in terms of the in-yer-face contact between singer and text and listener.

The delivery and surround varies quite a bit over the course of the ten tracks, from the close-knit unaccompanied two-part vocal work on Johnny and Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah to a spectral fiddle setting the scene for Listen To The Roll, which then tellingly adds shruti box drones. Most lavish of all is extended central track The Day Is Past And Gone, which builds inexorably to a clattering 12-string crescendo that’s like American-Primitive gone amok (the spirit of John Fahey sure haunts these grooves). As regards the actual songs, well some of them are actually quite obscure, but altho’ they’ve changed a few words here and there, notably genders (“largely to honour women through imagined histories”), I’d guess that Sally and Sarah have sourced their material directly from original singers, but unfortunately there’s neither liner notes nor background information on the actual songs or sources, cos the label’s policy is not to allow the reviewer any access to product presentation or package, just send over cyberspace a set of digital sound files. Sad that, as the songs, and the thrilling performances of House And Land, deserve much more.

David Kidman