Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Struggle Continues

Among the Oak & Ash
Among the Oak & Ash

Whether it's Springsteen doing Seeger or the misleadingly-dubbed Monsters of Folk crafting an album-long conceptual tribute to the Traveling Wilburys, making the old sound new again has become a reliable way to improve one's critical responses. Often one's sales figures, as well. It would be mean-spirited to suggest that this collaboration between Josh Joplin and Garrison Starr stems from anything other than a true artistic connection between the two songwriters, and in particular a shared affection for the very early 20th century roots music from which the bulk of Among the Oak & Ash's material is drawn.

Starr and Joplin succeed here, broadly, because these interpretations of traditional songs are not static. They're treating "folk" in its proper sense as music of any era that belongs to everybody, and as such the touches of the Velvet Underground, The Smiths, and Uncle Tupelo that snake through the album sound of a piece with the spiritual and protest lyrics. Starr sings "The Water Is Wide" with a lovely modern skepticism, and Joplin's impoverished a capella take on "Pretty Saro" is hugely affecting. What's more moving in the iTunes era than a singer who can't afford a backing band? The deliberate anachronisms on Among the Oak & Ash make all the difference, particularly in the rhythm section. The electric bass often adds dark, edgy coloring; the occasional disruptive hit of percussion reminds you that this source music is still alive with possibility.

The last third of the record sags a bit. "High, Low & Wide," the only original credited to the duo on the record, sounds forced as an effort to write a song in the same style as the source material. It borrows too much imagery from songs we've just heard. Likewise, the cover of "Bigmouth Strikes Again" really wrecks the atmosphere; the subtle touches of 80's and later influences on the new arrangements of the older material made their point well enough. A flat karaoke version of a song that's been done to death hangs on a lantern on the theme and undermines much of the more subtle work done earlier.

Joplin's "Joseph Hillström 1879-1915" is more interesting, although it doesn't sound at all of a piece with the material from the main body of the album. This history lesson in song form should educate listeners about the life of the pioneering protest singer/Wobbly Joe Hill, and Joplin and Starr have cleverly arranged and presented it in the repetitive, accessible style that was Hill's great gift to 20th century music.

Josh Joplin and Garrison Starr bring Among the Oak & Ash to Austin's Parish Room Tuesday, October 20th.

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