Cahalen Morrison & Eli West,
I'll Swing My Hammer with Both My Hands
(independent, 2014)

Nobody does it quite like this. "It" is the sound of antique American music, and "this" is the duo of Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, who are young men from the Pacific Northwest. The most immediate inspiration, however, is the music forged on the other side of the continent, in Appalachia by fiddlers, banjo pickers and mountain string bands. And there's something of Woody Guthrie here, too, a man who out of Southern roots fashioned memorable songs set in Columbia River country.

There is also the deeply poetic sensibility of Morrison's words -- he is the writer of the two -- not to mention the harmonies he and West create, of a sort that, if they'd lived to hear them, might have stopped Charlie & Ira Louvin in their tracks. I can't believe Morrison & West are showing off when they cover the Louvins's "Lorene" -- not to be confused with the 19th-century parlor ballad "Lorena," a favorite of the late, still-missed John Hartford -- on I'll Swing My Hammer with Both My Hands. But if they are, well, nobody's the loser, and who can blame the lads?

Oddly, though Morrison & West are rock musicians by no definition whatever, their album brings those early records by The Band (perhaps a folk outfit by some definitions) to mind. The Band took what Mike Seeger called the Old Southern Sound and put it to electric instruments while conjuring up its spirit as viewed through a counterculture-tinted lens. Nothing on Hammer exactly recreates the comic surrealism of "The Weight" or "Up on Cripple Creek," but a song like "James is Out" resurrects the same playful rural humor of another era. Like The Band, Morrison & West construct an imagined South and a phantom (if still recognizable) America. On the other hand, as is certainly not the case with Robbie Robertson, Bob Dylan's influence is neither omnipresent nor even much apparent.

Ably produced by the ubiquitous Tim O'Brien, the two play, with the self-confidence of masters, assorted stringed roots instruments -- guitar, clawhammer banjo, bouzouki, mandolin and dobro -- backed by a small ensemble including, among others, O'Brien and Boston fiddler Brittany Haas. The arrangements feel at once startlingly authentic and attractively fresh.

If these are not literal folk songs -- there is no actual traditional song here -- they're something like the ghosts of folk songs. Or, put another way, these could be the voices that whisper beneath the rough exterior of the originals. They're what one might hear if the source singers' circumstances and biographies (and, yes, educational levels) were otherwise. In that sense, for one example, it's not hard to think of "Anxious Rows" as a song Dock Boggs would have performed if he'd lived and reflected on it long enough. I don't mean to argue, of course, that this is strictly true, but damn it if Morrison & West don't get you to consider it might be.

There are 14 cuts and not a single throwaway. Three are covers: the above-mentioned Louvin Brothers tune, plus the Appalachian-flavored gospel standard "Green Pastures" -- in a version that, so help me, rivals Ralph Stanley's and Emmylou Harris's -- and "Natural Thing to Do," a fine pure-country number by veteran bluegrass composers Leroy Drumm & Pete Gobel, though not done as bluegrass. (Do not mistake the album's banjos and fiddles for bluegrass, which is not to be located anywhere here.) The originals are so strong and consistent that one has to struggle to pick out favorites -- "Down in the Lonesome Draw?" "Pocket Full of Dust"? "Livin' in America?" -- before abandoning the quest as so much pointless mental anguish. Nothing like mental anguish, Hammer is all wonder, profundity, and pleasure.

music review by
Jerome Clark

26 April 2014

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