self released 2011, CD EP, 24m 4s
‘Lo-fi’ has become an important part of the creative discourse of recorded music. Etymologically it’s nonsense: ‘fidelity’ has only ever been an ideological black-box in relation to the construction of ‘recordings’, while aesthetically the term points to a number of artistic strategies relating to the employment of specific textures rather than to any thresholds of quality or accuracy. Some of those textures are characteristic of technologies that are associated with poor quality standards, but the fact is that a cheap dynamic mic printing onto cassette can do a far better job of portraying the space and circumstances in which a recording has been made than expensive studio gear often does, not least because the listener is more likely to have some gnostic grasp of the process. First Draft was recorded onto chrome cassette, a medium with considerable warmth, no lack of clarity, and because of its literal narrow bandwidth, almost self-mastering; it’s nearly impossible to mix onto cassette without achieving a well integrated soundfield, whatever other faults may obtain. It is also prone (almost unavoidably) to hiss, but an element of white noise is something that many producers spend hours sculpting nowadays, and having a sound to stand in for silence can make a recording feel grounded and situated, in contrast to the decontextualising blankness of conventional studio practice.
The pieces of music collected on First Draft are mainly traditional style fiddle tunes, although only one is in fact traditional and all but two are penned by Aartwork themselves (Art Butler on fiddle and Claire Cordeaux on guitar). The world of instrumental folk, for all that it has witnessed numerous experiments and fusions in the past several decades, is a fairly strong bastion of mainstream musical ideologies: technical facility is highly valued, aesthetics are unquestioned assumptions (pure tone, lyrical phrasing, pretty melodies), and the idea that a recording is anything more artificial than a photograph is certainly not common currency. This CD will stand or fall then, (assuming the other elements are in place) on the extent to which its sound reads as a deliberate strategy, rather than a failure to achieve ‘fidelity’.
Those other elements are decidedly in place, I’m glad to say. This is a field of music that’s crowded with virtuosi, so it’s hard to impress the informed listener however good you might be, and they will conversely demand a high standard before they give a recorded instrumentalist the time of day. Butler and Cordeaux wisely confine their ambitions to playing simply and well at achievable tempos, and having done so, they nail it. They have a great rapport and a mutually supportive sense of groove that ebbs and pulses with an engaging, intuitive expressivity. Butler’s fiddle has a warm, broad tone, and his intonation is pleasingly self-aware, rather than robotically precise (equal temperament is the enemy of a good fiddle sound, but that’s a rant for another day); Cordeaux has a sure-fingered right hand touch that gives her chords harmonic clarity, and a nice sound, although she is less well served by the recording process than Butler. What novelty they bring to the table is twofold: there are pronounced elements of jazz and blues in their approach, mainly in the guitar style, but also in the melodies; and Butler makes intelligent use of effects, mainly to develop atmospheres and ambiences, extending the duo’s affective compass into areas normally reserved to larger ensembles.
There are many points of similarity between the lyricism of blues and that of Europe’s Celtic fringe, and Aartwork are alive to that liminal zone, cleverly exploiting its indeterminacies to bypass the listener’s conditioned stylistic reaction, and address sounds directly to their emotional responses. Alternately driving subjective time forward with fiery, liquid dance tunes and halting it with the affective wringing of blue notes and minor-pentatonic slurs, the duo make their own commitment clear in a way that is engaging and pleasantly unpredictable. Finding an effective fusion is not about smart-arsed erudition, but about hearing the opportunities to reinforce points of common interest that do exist at a pre-verbal level, even between cultures that are considerably more heterodox than the sources of Aartwork’s musical materials. The ingredients combined in First Draft are not a bizarre or jarring combination, and similar approaches have been employed many times before, but the baseline remains so insistently traditional (or more to the point, conventional) that this soup certainly has some novelty value.
For me the warmth of the sound is a real asset, but as to whether the other artifacts of the recording medium (ubiquitous hiss and a somewhat choked guitar sound in places) are compensated by that warmth, or are able to be heard as creative strategies in their own right, I’m still undecided. I can certainly hear the white noise as a token of the music’s sincerity, its ‘realness’ if you will, and I wouldn’t be particularly impressed by a production that dissembled the recording as artifact, but I really would like to hear the guitar speak a little more clearly at times. I should imagine that most fans of instrumental folk will miss the creative value of the lo-fi sound, but that’s a risk that every artist runs if they experiment (and what worthwhile artwork is not, to some degree, an experiment?); the hardcore fans of that music can be pretty hide-bound in their aesthetics, but I’m sure they’ll still hear and enjoy the playing. For the rest of us (well, for me anyway) this is a lovely half hour of drive, melody, mood, warmth and passion.