Harry Manx & Kevin Breit, |
In Good We Trust
(Stony Plain, 2007)
Veteran Canadian pickers Harry Manx and Kevin Breit, abundantly gifted multi-instrumentalists, bring a formidable array of talents to this, their second album as a duo. (I have not heard Jubilee, their first.) Perhaps most immediately noticeable is Manx's debt to Indian music, which he learned from V.M. Bhatt, best known in North America for his memorable collaboration with Ry Cooder, A Meeting by the River (1993).
As on that album, Manx and Breit fuse Old World and New World sounds too vividly to reduce them to soothing, new-age aural wallpaper. This is music both rooted in folk and infused with classical, jazz and avant-garde, all wrapped in an organic whole. It may recall, in a general way, Kelly Joe Phelps's approach, at once grounded and atmospheric. If "gritty" is an adjective that does not apply, neither does "airy." Manx and Breit create a universe of their own that, if one first notes its oddness, soon enough starts to feel cozy and familiar, owing as much to the players' warmth as to their considerable technical proficiency.
It's just the two of them, too, working a range of stringed instruments, many with slides, underscoring the link with country blues and Hawaiian music, though more as influence than as direct representation. If traditional references are everywhere, the only old folk song here is "Death Have Mercy," lyrically and musically somewhere between "Oh Death" and "Death Don't Have No Mercy in This Land." But Manx, who handles the vocal in a stoic deadpan reminiscent of a lower-register Bruce Springsteen, is playing an Indian instrument identified as the mohan veena, wrapping the song in an eerie, unsettling tone, while Breit backs him on electric guitar and bass.
The album opens with Springsteen's "I'm on Fire," a strangely somber song about lust and, to my ears, a peculiar (albeit hardly disastrous) choice for first cut, and Manx and Breit add unusual instruments (cigar-box guitar, bazouki, electric tamboura) to an interpretation whose vocal follows Springsteen's fairly closely. Manx's Springsteenesque "Sometimes" follows. (Springsteen's influence on all of Manx's originals is not hard to detect.) In Good We Trust starts really to loosen up with the next cut, Breit's "Bottom of the Hill," its sprightly melody disguising its largely downbeat lyrics, loping along to the angular rhythm of Manx's lap slide guitar -- an instrument that gives the album much of its character. The next cut and first instrumental, Breit's "Better Man's Waltz," comes out of an unusual setting -- Manx's banjo, Breit's slide mandocello and national mandolin -- creating a brooding, elusive sound.
The rest of In Good consists of an equal number of songs and instrumentals, capably written and rewarding even after repeated listenings. Unlike much music that gets labeled "contemporary folk music" -- often no more than an assortment of narcissistic gestures -- what Manx and Breit put forth feels, at its best, larger than its creators and its influences combined.
3 November 2007