May 12, 2010
Carbeth(Honest Jon’s 2009)
England graced us with so many psych-folk icons in the 1960s. Their troubadours borrowed from the same pages as their American counterparts, but imbued it with a stately grandeur lacking in the States. Both were indebted to the blues, folk, psychedelia and country, but the British interpreted country quite literally as their output celebrated the rural life and its mundane, yet magical charms. This is one big fucking generalization hovering in the air like a pinata waiting to be whacked by shephard’s staff, but I always felt the American point of view was one of protest and restless ennui where the bands like Fairport Convention Pentangle and Incredible String Band were more interested in celebrating tradition, mother nature and the epehemeral nature of life. Sure, hippies on all continents were singing about long-haired beauties, narcotics and peaceful vibes, but the Americans raised their fists in the air while the British dug theirs into the earth and were inextricably tied to the surroundings in which they were raised.
Not surprisingly, this era has been mined so often that it’s kind of hard to be floored by an album that owes so much to a particular genre. Sure, people have put their own stamp on English psych-folk by slathering it in proggy excess like the Espers, ringing feedback like select shoegazers or just aimed for a faithful interpretation of its ample vibes. The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to duplicate the pipes of a Sandy Denny or Jacqui McPhee or the meandering warble of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron. It is the x-factor that renders the rest pretenders to a die-cast that is not easily reproduced or imitated. Then you hear Trembling Bells’ vocalist Lavinia Blackwell sing and you wonder where this voice has been all of your life. She’s no dead ringer for Denny, but I wouldn’t want her to be, but her voice soars like her idols and she squeezes plenty of pathos into every note. However, what sets Trembling Bells apart from the rest is that they possess the melancholy grace of their influences, yet inject enough subtle eccentricities into their instrumentation that they are entirely their own creation.
Carbeth is their debut and its success isn’t surprising since their ranks include guitarist Ben Reynolds, who gets no press, but blew me away a few years back with a series of cdrs that lulled me to sleep many a night. Drummer Alex Neilson has played with Jandek, Baby Dee, Alasdair Roberts and Will Oldham and his improvisational background lends a loosey-goosey demeanor to the percussion. In short, there is a ramshackle refinement to this music and it soars where so many kindred spirits have fallen flat. There is a triumphant quality to this album where you get the sense that they are hitting on all cylinders, albeit in the most mellow way possible. If it was released in 1967, everyone would embrace it as a godsend, but it has been relegated as an afterthought a year after its release. That’s a shame since it deserves so much more respect and devotion than a cult following. Carbeth is the real deal and taps into that awe one gets when hearing Unhalfbricking or Wee Tam and the Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter at 3am. In my admittedly biased world, it doesn’t get any better than that.