Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams,
Contraband Love
(Red House, 2017)

In This Time
(independent, 2017)

As one turns to their new Red House release, one thinks of Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams as something like an American Richard & Linda Thompson. Though the very English Thompsons are still around, they haven't been a couple or a musical partnership since the 1980s. Their recordings have aged well, fortunately. I imagine Contraband Love will attract some of the same audience, namely discerning listeners attracted to austere performances based in songs whose words matter.

Folk-rock is the usual name for the hybrid genre, and it's as good as any since it highlights the two most obvious characteristics. Being American, Campbell & Williams are also conversant in blues, r&b and country, touching all three in well-constructed arrangements, respectively of the traditional "Slidin' Delta" (the Tommy Johnson, not the Mississippi John Hurt, variant), the co-write "When I Stop Loving You" (Campbell with revered soul singer-songwriter William Bell), and Carl Perkins' "Turn Around," for which the overused descriptive "haunting" is unavoidable. In fact, slightly revised it could be a ghost story. They revive the 1923 jazz-pop "My Sweetie Went Away," the sort of tune that decades later would be championed most prominently by Maria Muldaur.

Campbell has a long history as a go-to electric guitarist and producer with a resume that boasts work with Bob Dylan, Mavis Staples and other estimables, but he is perhaps most famously associated with the roots-rock/blues/folk crowd around the late Levon Helm, as is Williams. Helm, in fact, appears as drummer on "Turn Around," cut toward the end of his life. Teresa Williams is the sort of singer who can rattle your bones without raising her voice.

Some of Campbell's originals are (I read here) focused on addiction and recovery, though that is not always immediately evident to the naive consumer. A good thing, I think; it means the songs are smartly conceived enough to sustain more than one interpretation. I like this, their second album, more than I did their eponymously titled first (which I did not review in this space). Their other release seemed -- to my ears anyway, and I can only write from those -- like decent but somewhat generic guitar rock. No one will so judge Contraband, which perhaps represents a more fully formed iteration of a sound the couple are creating, an intelligently integrated fusion of complementary styles and traditions. As good as this is, I imagine what they're doing can only get better.

Another sort of fusion can be heard in the music of Masontown, a folk band with a modernist approach along with jazz and bluegrass influences. The outfit consists of four young pickers out of Colorado's rich acoustic-roots scene. Though I had initial reservations -- it's easy to end up with naught but indulgence and sappiness when one mixes tradition and experimentation -- In This Time soon won me over with its high-level musicianship and keen melodicism.

To be candid about it, I can't help being favorably disposed toward those, especially the young, who share my affection for folk music in its original -- i.e., traditional -- definition. The album opens with "Cambric Shirt," a variant of the venerable ballad "The Elfin Knight" (aka "Scarborough Fair," "The Tri-Coloured House" and more). While the arrangement and melody are reimagined, the lyrics come from a version collected in Maine around the turn of the last century. The reading of "Shady Grove," with guest George Guthrie's subtly shaped old-time banjo sound, is closer to the source recordings, though smoothed up; still, a thing of joy. The title tune, by band member Natalie Padilla, adapts the tune to the Appalachian standard "Red Rocking Chair."

"Nightingale" hails from 17th-century England, originally "The Bold Grenadier," more often known in North America as "The Soldier & the Lady" and "The Wild Rippling Water." It chronicles a casual erotic encounter consummated, it turns out, under false pretenses. I've known it most of my life, probably having first heard it on a Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem album. Till I read Steve Roud's newly published Folk Song in England, however, I did not appreciate that "this is one of many songs in which musical instruments and music itself are used as sexual metaphors." I guess that means the fiddle that figures so prominently in the narrative is ... not a fiddle.

Clay Rose's darkly toned "Abilene" (one of three songs I know of by that title) has the resonance of an old ballad, and a melody built to last. The picking sparkles all the way through both songs and instrumentals, and the harmonies gladden the heart. I am filing In This Time among the happy surprises in a year already full of splendid music.

music review by
Jerome Clark

21 October 2017

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