Heidi Harris – All Fall Down (freak folk)

self released, 2012, DD album, 46m 35s

$0+ (name your price)


The way this album is presented, you’d think it was a more or less random bundle of artistic detritus, a set of oddments that didn’t fit anywhere else, of interest mainly to hardcore fans and completists. ‘Collaborations, new recordings, song sketches and 2 videos’ is the promise made on the Bandcamp page. Why then does it sound so creatively coherent? Either Harris is being deliberately disingenuous (or perhaps just excessively diffident), or she works with such a degree of creative and aesthetic clarity that her every artistic gesture, however casual, bears her unmistakeable imprimatur. I would guess that the truth lies somewhere between the two, but I’m far from certain; either way, it doesn’t really matter. This collection of recordings works very effectively together, and taken as a whole, it expounds a fascinating and immersive soundworld.

Heidi Harris’ songs are big open spaces, full of possibility. Things happen, a succession of sonic events, and they follow a clear syntactical sequence, making song structures of an entirely recognisable kind, and yet there is always the sense that anything else might happen, at any moment. The orchestration is built largely from instrumental voices, such as cello, clarinet, piano, percussion etc. (although the source of each individual sound is not always clear), but they are not locked together into rigid grooves or dense textures. Instead, they gesture contingently, jamming with each other and a background of tangible, recorded silence. Lyrics are used less to tell stories, or expound observations, than they are to brush an idea onto the canvas that will be coloured and overpainted by the other sounds. The cover version of Kate Bush’s ‘Watching You Without Me’ is a perfect adaptation of material to Harris’ creative practice, exploiting her links with Bush’s sensibility, while making the song unmistakeably her own. The lovely song ‘To Haunt You’, written by Pierre Leplace, is presented with a more conventional, rhythmically fixed and temporally linear approach, but it slips into a silence haunted by progressively louder urban sounds, as unidentifiable as they are familiar. ‘Frank and Seraphine’ is the setting for a spoken word performance by Darius Greene, a darkly hilarious essay in disturbing absurdity and linguistic brilliance; Greene incants like a Beat poet, and Harris’ accompaniment strikes precisely the right note of whacked-out, hip abstraction.

It’s only in the album’s fourteen minute finale, ‘Storm Story’, that we hear any extended use of musical materials that might be uncontroversially described as ‘folk’, but Harris’ sounds are so consistently realised, and her language so exact, that for all its magpie sonic eclecticism, All Fall Down is clearly shaped by a sense of style in which Americana is central. Almost everything is pared away, but what’s left retains a recognisable point of departure. ‘Storm Story’ was ‘written and recorded during a storm’, but Harris has taken it as she found it, resisting the obvious temptation to stick her mic out of the window and exaggerate the sounds of the weather; instead we are left to infer the meteorology from her succession of sonic scenes, presented like an actor delivering monologues as a succession of characters. It works like a microcosm of the whole album.

Heidi Harris is not the sort of musician to draw attention to her instrumental technique, and virtuoso articulation is obviously not what she’s about, but her entire creative practice is based on her understanding of, and intimacy with, her variety of traditionally operated sound sources. She has a husky mellowness on the clarinet, and a warm, smooth arco on electric cello, that show she has taken the time to live with her instruments, to assimilate their sounds to her own. What she does with her sounds respects no traditional conventions however, much though it may imply an appreciation of older approaches to music making. There’s a touch of the collagist about the work, as though Robert Rauschenberg had worked with acoustic events rather than goats and tyres, but music is always performance, however much it emphasises stillness (which is always a presence in Harris’ work), and All Fall Down is, as its title implies, all about movement. Fascinating, spellbinding movement, of the most creative, intelligent and soulful sort I can imagine.

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