Here is an interesting album that modestly appeared here in the shop last week without much fanfare. There is no release show scheduled for this disc as yet, still it’s something we’ve enjoyed and think many of you may too. And, as our friend Ben Weaver has often pointed out, the cycle of record release and promotion isn’t always conducive to the creating of lasting art.
Fans of Weaver are likely to enjoy Crow Call’s new disc, as are folks who have enjoyed other like-minded traditional music here in the Twin Cities such as Harry Smith-revivalists Corpse Reviver or Charlie Parr. Ellie Bryan’s first disc, Am I Born to Die, was a promising collection of familiar and forgotten folk songs, distinguished by innovative arrangements that were often arrestingly stark. Twice, for instance, she presents “O Death” (familiar to many as the song Ralph Stanley sang in O Brother Where Art Thou a few years ago), recalling the spirit of Doc Boggs as surely as putting her own imprint on the song’s dark narrative.
In pairing with Peter Ruddy to produce Crow Call, Bryan expands the potential range of her music without cluttering up its shadowy narrative. Ruddy’s role, playing 12-string guitar or bajo quinto (a Mexican guitar-like instrument tuned in forths), adds atmospheric richness similar to Charlie Parr’s recent instrumental album, Hollandale. On their original “Oak Trees” his playing is especially beautiful, pushing the song forward with building intensity.
Still, s Marcel Marceau once wrote, “it’s the notes you don’t play that make the difference.” There’s a lot more going on in Crow Call’s self-titled debut disc than Bryan’s solo album, but even the fastest tune, the standard “Pretty Polly,” is clean and uncluttered unlike some of the lightning-fast bluegrass that has become widespread.
Crow Call is most of all remarkable for Ellie Bryan’s confidence, both as a performer on the banjo and as a singer — in this this disc takes giant steps beyond Am I Born to Die, and Bryan ought to any list of local folkies to follow. Her interpretation of “I Wish My Baby Was Born” is one of the best folk songs to appear on a local album so far this year — as a song curiously more often performed by men, Bryan gives the old saw a more convincing recreation than revered figures like Jeff Tweedy (on the third Uncle Tupelo album) or Tim Eriksen, whose recording for the Cold Mountain soundtrack is more along the Appalachian lines of Ralph Stanley than Bryan’s old world version. Its something remarkably like what Corpse Reviver’s Jillian Rae did last year with “Wagoner’s Lad,” a song likely as old as “I Wish My Baby Was Born.”
“I Wish my Baby was Born”
Bryan has recorded several songs from the two best-selling T Bone Burnett soundtracks we’ve mentioned, but it wouldn’t be fair to suggest Crow Call is in any way derivative of those revival records. The originals on this album imply a wider range of influence, from Black Sabbath to the Cowboy Junkie’s Trinity Sessions album. Their originals are slow, driven and haunting, especially “They Know,” which was the first sample we heard from this disc a while back. Ruddy’s slide guitar is surprisingly bluesy on the closer, “In the Pines,” and the appearance of a guest on harmonica, Patrich Donaghue, is a great choice. There’s a lot of range to Crow Call — it’s often amazing what can be done in the simplest folk tradition, something Jack Klatt reminded us of a couple years ago when he recorded his solo album in the tradition of Dave Von Ronk.
With this debut disc (which you can hear in its entirety here) Crow Call offers a little glimpse into what their collaboration will likely produce — we would like very much to hear more from this duo.