Heidi Harris – Underneath The Grass And Clover (folk)

self released, 2011, DD album, 1hr 10m 35s

$name your price


Heidi Harris works with a palette of folk and Americana pigments, but she doesn’t paint quite the pictures you might expect. Folk music is a collective aurality, the sonic expression of an orally transmitted tradition, and as such, it daubs its canvases with the colours of communal experience: even when it trades in specificities, perhaps the transportation of a loved one in punishment for a minor crime, it is a shared misfortune that is lamented, and it is its similarity to the experience of other participants in the music that is important. Much modern (post 1950s) music that uses a folk vocabulary, and that claims the authenticity of tradition (by calling itself folk) is in fact art music, however, concerned with the expression of an individual creative vision: there must be shared or recognisable experience, or it cannot communicate meaningfully, but the emphasis is on expressing the unique.

Harris’ work plainly falls into the latter category. In ‘Strum’ she uses a folk flavoured melody, and exploits the simplicity of traditional music: but the simplicity is exaggerated, and the guitar is in fact barely strummed, rather being subjected to repeated downbeats on a single chord. In We’ll Tell On You’s ‘Table Wave’ the lyric perfectly evokes the character of traditional song (especially in the pathos of the refrain ‘underneath the grass and clover’), but it betrays its individuated modernity with lines like ‘and we came/ put our memories on the table/ and waved them in the air’. This is the act of an isolated modern (or post-modern) subject, bringing their asocial experience and offering it to the community: in folk culture, these memories are already the property of the broader social context; they cannot be placed on the table, because they are the table.

Obviously, if I told you Harris was a folk musician, you would not have assumed I meant she had been magically transplanted from some pre-industrial milieu, or that her music comprised the exact reproduction of songs she’d been taught by her grandmother. In fact, folk traditions have room for innovation, with materials being incrementally developed with each transmission, and original compositions being assimilated through use. It is important to recognise, however, that the modern musician in a folk idiom is doing something more complex than ‘playing folk music’: whether or not their work derives from a tradition to which they have a personal or family connection, they are choosing and exploiting musical materials for particular expressive effect. This is unavoidable: every member of modern developed societies is inextricably connected to and inscribed with a vast range of local, regional and global social forces, and as such they are creative agents in a way that was once exclusive to a section of the urban bourgeoisie. Paradoxical as it may seem, ‘folk music’, as practiced today, is a form of ‘art music’.

This album collects recordings from a variety of musical projects with which  Harris has been involved; some are included under her own name, but also represented are We’ll Tell On You, Hawk Horses, Cutleri (who I have previously reviewed), and Heidi Harris and Teletextile. While these projects all have their own voice, there is also a consistency of sound: had Harris presented this under a single name there would have been no difficulty taking her word for it. The most obvious unifying factor is her voice.

This recording is only available as a Bandcamp download, and doesn’t come with detailed credits I’m too lazy/ stupid to look at the individual tracks where the credits are listed, so I couldn’t tell you who played what, or which of the instrumental parts were performed by the woman with her name above the door: her singing voice is highly recognisable however. There are a small number of other vocal contributions, but the majority of it is Harris. She is a singer with an acute awareness of the sound of her own voice, and the ability to utilise its idiosyncrasies to great effect: while her vocal timbre is not particularly unusual in its own right, it is certainly beautiful, and her intimate delivery, glassy with sibilance, brings an immediacy to the act of communication that seems to position the listener right in the time and place of performance.

The arrangements on Underneath The Grass And Clover are largely constructed from the harmonies and stylistic gestures of Americana and English folk music, but they are rarely assembled in a predictable or formulaic manner. Aside from the presence of many other elements, such as field recordings, electronics and hints of other styles, there are a variety of structural approaches. The songs are mostly conventionally strophic, but their sectional character may be delineated by the words alone, or by a timbral variation, and the phraseology Harris appropriates is often articulated in the form of a riff, or a textural ambience.

There are a variety of approaches, but what they have in common is a certain simplicity: enough is done to elaborate and realise an intention, but no more. The effect of this, with its carefully ordered textural juxtapositions, is an ethereal and transparent ambience: there are no storming acoustic dance tunes here, but there is an impressive degree of creativity, a clear and precise intelligence, and a sense of aesthetics that is alert to the smallest nuance of vocal or instrumental timbre and phrasing. This is a lovely, thought provoking album, full of light and beauty.

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