One of my favorite writers is Jacob Bronowski, the Polish-born mathematician and biologist whose books often explore the relationship between science and the arts with stunning candor. There is a moment at the end of his magnus opus, the 1973 BBC documentary based on his book The Ascent of Man, that I have never forgotten. Wearing the slovenly suit of an academic, he is standing in the swampy field outside of Auschwitz where the ashes of the dead were dumped. As he steps into the stagnant waters he speaks about the need to humanize our scientific endeavors. Without rolling up his sleeve, he reaches into the water and take up a handful wet earth, saying to the camera: “We have to touch people.”
The top-selling traditional album of 2012 is sure to be Babel by Mumford & Sons, an awaited follow-up to their debut album which has sold over two and a half million copies in the US alone. Babel was recorded at four studios over the course of at least a year at an expense of six (possibly seven) figures – never before has it cost so much to sound so simple!
Witching & Divining, the third album (or second or fourth) by local folk-roots collaborative Swallow, has been about as long in the making although I imagine it cost a great deal less to record. I make a comparison not to disparage Mumford & Sons (better they sell two and a half million albums than some starlet spun from American Idol) but to present the potential range of traditional music today. Whether roots music is more sincere closer to the roots I will leave up to the listener to decide.
Swallows have been playing several of the songs from Witching & Divining for some time – they even released demos of a few on Clear Sky Relapse, their 2010 EP – and they’ve taken on an “old” quality. Songs played enough times develop scars – little variations over which an arrangement eventually grows – and other distinctive characteristics. So it is with Witching & Divining, as scarred and distinctive a series of songs could be.
Swallows themselves are a band with scars, struggling to make use of their first solid line-up. Never before has the band been so focused on a singular sound, and never has it succeeded in such an endeavor as Witching & Divining.
(“Long Long Shadow”)
So much is evident from the determination of “Long Long Shadow,” which opens the album. The production is a stunning improvement over Clear Sky Relapse, but also captures a raw, live feel with the rough edges of 70s progressive rock albums. There’s a gritty underlayment that holds together the twelve tracks on Witching & Divining more than anything else. In this first track Mike Nordby is heard providing subtle, driving accompaniment to its Celtic, tribal rhythm with a mandolin, but elsewhere over the ensuing three quarters of an hour he is heard on instruments as diverse as the djembe and washboard. Textural noises are created with found objects – sandpaper, pipes, trash cans, a grill wok. Nordby’s credits attest to the albums heavy roots feel.
He is, in this capacity, joined by bandmate Tyson Allison, who plays lead guitar but also various percussion and the marimba that characterizes the album’s best track – “The Winnowing” – and also the melodica that adds an enormous depth to a couple tracks.
Jeff Crandall (described by a bandmate as “an alchemist”) howls, growls and sometimes downright croons over the band’s driving, sinewy arrangements. He is the principle songwriter, too, although he often times competes with cellist Aaron Kerr, who seems to push him. Crandall and Kerr have been playing together for more than ten years.
A cello is not the first thing you hear in Witching & Divining but it quickly defines the album, often working with Allison’s guitar. The unsung soul who holds it together is Justin DeLeon, the drummer making his debut with the band. He gives a tribal drive to “Long Long Shadow” and gives meat to a couple lean numbers like “The Devil’s Hole”:
(“The Devil’s Hole”)
You can, by the way, listen to the entire album on their bandcamp page (here).
(“Witching & Divining”)
You’ll probably notice that on “The Winnowing” and one other track Crandall sounds like Tom Waits. True, but there’s a surprising range throughout the album. On the title track he sounds distinctly like the Boss*. In fact, in their earnest earthiness Swallows sounds better than Springsteen’s band on the over-produced back-to-roots Seeger Sessions.
When I talked to the band about their album Crandall said it was a continuation of their “covert transitions to the element.” When I pressed him to explain this he said that each song began belonging to one of the four elementals – earth, wind, fire and water – and evolved from there. From the ground up, or out of fresh air or whatever each song is on the album is moving, sometimes earthy and sometimes ethereal.
Witching & Divining also has more vibrancy than that top seller from across the sea, something-or-other n’ son, whose album sounds so re-recorded and overdubbed it looses the natural energy of traditional music. Folk music and big business just don’t jibe because the basic human instinct to create music gets lost in all the lavish production. Although Witching & Divining is Swallows’ fullest production to date, it doesn’t loose the live feeling of intimacy and interplay essential to their music. Like my favorite local traditional album of 2012 (Adam Kiesling’s Unclouded Day), Witching & Divining has the feeling of friends playing familiar songs together in a basement or living room. You feel at times you could reach out and touch them.
*(Although it must be noted that I particularly love this song because it is a love song for a woman named Laura.)
Swallows will perform Witching & Divining here at Hymie’s on Thursday to warm up for the album’s official release show at the Amsterdam Bar in St. Paul on Saturday.