self released, 2010, DD album, 45m 18s
Folk music, as a widely shared conceptual category, is largely defined by a sense of authenticity: it is culturally specific music, and it is valued by many (or most) of its fans for its truthfulness to a particular sort of shared experience. This is not usually the personal experience of its listeners, but of the social context of its production: the values and narratives that it encodes are those of a non-industrial, rural, orally constituted community, founded on ties of family and residential proximity. This is all very well, except that this sense of authenticity turns out to be specious.
Of course the kinds of communities of musical practice, and structures of oral transmission described by the idea of ‘folk music’ do really exist, but they exist just as much in the stylistic areas referred to by the terms ‘art music’ and ‘popular music’; conversely, the specific practices of those musics turn out to be essential parts of the production of ‘folk music’ (mass distribution, personal expression, association of work with individual authors, specialised professional practitioners, etc.) The whole idea of folk music, as anything more substantial than a list of geographically located styles, becomes more chimerical the closer the scrutiny it is subjected to.
Hawk Horses work with the vocabularies of a particular, closely related set of folk musics to forge a different kind of authenticity, one that is more personal and less dependent on an unstable mythology; the music on FALL is animated by a truthfulness to the artistic vision of its authors. It is a richly woven tapestry of creativity, and the deliberate manipulation of knowingly selected materials; its methodology goes beyond the putting of a personal stamp on a received soundworld, and continually reassesses the terms of its engagement with the aural and conceptual substance of Americana. In other words, it’s folk, Jim, but not as we know it.
The first tune, ‘creatures on the wall’ (yes, Hawk Horses are another one of those independent bands too impoverished to afford many capital letters) opens with some strange, humorous noises, combining the twinkling with the woobly (those are technical terms) in a way that resembles a soundtrack to the more surreal type of European kids’ TV; when Heidi Harris’ vocal enters, it is breathy and indistinct, her exhalations barely louder than her inhalations, and any verbal text is lost in the mists of the soundscape, as layers of her voice enter and overlap in a kind of dis-coherent fugue. A male voice of uncertain origin speaks in the background, as Harris’ vocalisations become more rhythmically distinct; an acoustic guitar emerges gradually into the mix and drones on a single, incompletely sounded chord; the chord changes, and Olds Sleeper’s vocal enters, emerging gradually, as with the other elements, although with an audible lyric.
All of this builds tension. There is the sense that something has to happen: not necessarily because the music feels introductory, although to some extent it does, but because it’s unclear what the duo is getting at, and by the time the male vocal enters we are desperate for a key, for some clarifying deus ex machina to make sense of it all. It comes in the form of a refrain, a rootsy melodic descent, with accompanying chord change, and the entry of an electronic drumbeat, with a booming resonant kick. The refrain? ‘There’s creatures on the wall.’ Huh? What the hell kind of folk song is this? By the time we get to it, we’re so disorientated that we don’t care, and grasp willingly at the proffered sense of stability. This is nearly halfway through the song.
Subsequently, the various bizarre elements of the arrangement become more separated and distinct, and the song takes the shape of its rhythm and the regular repetition of the refrain. In the last minute it builds to a crescendo with the entry of some shoegaze style fuzzed-out guitar. And then it stops abruptly. The next song enters with a conventionally folky gesture, and continues in that vein.
I’d love to analyse this album tune by tune, but we’d be here all day, and you deserve the chance to be surprised by it. The reason I’ve treated the first track in such depth is because it gives a good sense of the working method, although most of the tracks are considerably more conventional: these two musicians are creatively motivated by (among other things) a love for the sounds of Americana, but they are singularly uninterested in being purists, or playing it how anyone else might tell them to. In fact, they’re not playing ‘it’, they’re just playing the music that comes to them, which sometimes involves elements of rock and electronics: they don’t let any misplaced sense of authenticity stand in the way of stirring the pot to their own tastes. Sleeper puts it best in ‘Toyloveguitar- fifth bounce’ when he sings ‘I just want to sing you a song/ my love’.
Hawk Horses’ Facebook page informs me that they have ‘never actually been in the same room… but when you’re a Hawk Horse, it doesn’t really matter’: this album is entirely an internet collaboration. Each artist’s contribution represents a response to recordings, or a speculative leap anticipating an eventual response: this kind of high latency jamming is as far removed from traditional notions of folk musicianship as it is possible to get. For all its experimentalism and avnt-garde tendencies however, there is never the slightest sense of disconnect between the participants.
In part this is due to their mastery and internalisation of the vocabularies they use: they articulate their musical ideas with such a relaxed feel, such an organic sense of conversational intimacy, that it is very hard to imagine them in separate places. In fact, inasmuch as recordings construct imagined soundworlds, there is a sense in which they’re not: the creative space generated by their long distance exchange of musical material is reified on this recording into a place that is as real as our imaginative capacity to join them in it. With its soulful gestures, its warm toned instrumental textures, its playful eclecticism, and its strong sense of poetry, it is a beautiful and magical place to be.