Malfangled Dog Records, 2011, DD album, 53m 19s
I get a lot of visual clichés when I listen to this album. I get sunset, Mr. sleeper’s weatherbeaten face, eyes hidden by the brim of his hat, battered boots on the rail of the porch as he plays, wonky rows of telegraph poles marching off across a flat, parched landscape. I get dust: dust in the air; dust on the pots; dust on the needle. It’s all rubbish. The Pennsylvania landscape of olds sleeper’s patrimony is probably pretty similar to the green, rolling Suffolk I walk the dog in every day.
Having said that, there’s definitely a bit of a desert gothic feel to the whole piece of work: the two ravens on the cover might appear to be diving through the air, but I’ve seen too many dead ones dangling from poles by their feet not to recognise the way their wings hang. There’s a sparsity to the arrangements and the harmonies; this is not the bluegrass that sleeper grew up with; its chord sequences are not the self-inflected, affirmative, cycle-of-fifths movements of traditional country, nor the simple modalities of folk. In fact, they sound like nothing so much as the sequentially static harmonies of rock music. There’s an unlocated, mythical American landscape in these songs, somewhere halfway between the Appalachians and the Texas Panhandle, by way of Greenwich Village.
Banjo’s a prominent instrumental voice on plainspoken, as are acoustic guitar and harmonica. They are sometimes joined by something as vulgar as a grittily distorted electric (be warned, all you folk and country purists), which sounds entirely at home in the deliberately lo-fi production; there are odd bits of drums, and a couple of outbreaks of slide, but on the whole the songs are minimally orchestrated. I’m wary of any suggestion that musical utterances are unmediated, and generally very suspicious of the idea of authenticity, but there’s a powerfully evoked sense of directness to this music.
This does not derive solely from the simplicity of the arrangements, although the clarity with which each musical device is showcased contributes to the feeling that olds sleeper’s creative impulses are being presented to us as found. His voice is hoarsely expressive, and well controlled, but it retains the relaxed irregularity of speech, and his lyrics cut deep without any contrivance or polished erudition.
plainspoken is full of restraint. You can hear the raw edge of sleeper’s passion for his sounds and his subjects, in his singing and his playing, yet he holds it all back with steely discipline. There are no histrionics. There’s a sense of tired experience in the songs, of hard earned wisdom and insights dearly bought. The music coneys neither cynical disillusion nor despair, but there is a powerful streak of melancholy, and of realism. I am rarely engaged by a recording as deeply as I have been by this one, which displays the kind of mastery of its musical materials that can only be discerned in the lightness with which it is worn. Beautiful, moving, and richly layered with meanings, more of which are yielded up the more deeply you listen, this album is, nevertheless, plainspoken.