Hunter Robertson,
Songs for the Masses
(independent, 2007)


Listening to Songs for the Masses (that title comprising the album's one and only flash of humor), I reflected on how rarely these days one hears traditional songs -- field recordings aside -- performed traditionally. Even less commonly encountered are records by raised-outside-the-tradition artists who choose to recreate a sound that seems to capture the feeling of homespun front-porch, dance-hall, street-corner music from the age before the advent of the recording industry. (Since we have no recordings from back then to guide us, imagination and inference are as omnipresent in the attempt as "authenticity," of course.)

Hunter Robertson, who now resides in Vermont but who has lived in the United Kingdom, Greece and France, has produced that kind of record. The sole performer, he employs the banjo (along with the occasional fretless, gut-string or gourd variation) as his principal instrument, though 12-string guitar, electric guitar, kazoo and percussion also show up, if less often. There are 14 songs and instrumentals, approximately half of them traditional, the rest originals indistinguishable from traditionals.

Robertson sings in a rolling rumble that will likely put you in a couple of minds: Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart in one, in the other the sort of field recording in which an ethnomusicologist is seeking to document an instrumental style and the singing, rough as a cob, is simply -- at least from the immediate academic perspective -- extraneous. Contributing to the latter psychic impression is Robertson's sometime habit of burying his vocal into the mix, if "mix" is not too fancy a word to denote the almost skinless sound; sometimes, if one were a superstitious soul, one might imagine a 200-year-old ghost was accidentally captured on the tape as, otherwise inaudible, it sang to Robertson's playing of an old tune. All of this, by the way, is perfectly fine by me.

The banjo playing -- as exquisite as it is eccentric -- has the creaky ambience of a haunted house. "Banjo Medley" is 5:37's worth of four venerable tunes played clawhammer style, the last of them a Greek folk piece that feels in no way out of place. The African-American spiritual "Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin' Bed" has Robertson's growled lyrics set on top of a fierce, doom-laden 12-string groove. It is damned scary.

'Til now, I have not heard a version of "Red Wing" -- though long since absorbed by tradition, it began its life as a pop song in the early 20th century -- so stark and gloomy as to make one forget just how dopey the lyrics are. Even so, what a melody, all the more attractive for the way Robertson manages to turn it inside out without killing it. In another sit-up-and-take-notice moment, he gives "You Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond" -- always emotionally and rhythmically dead-on -- the one-man-band treatment.

Songs for the Masses is for neither the masses nor the timid. But if you're up for a walk through the lonesome valley that stretches across the moonless landscape of the old, weird America, Robertson will show you the way.




Rambles.NET
review by
Jerome Clark

5 July 2008


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