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Fern Knight - Music for Witches and Alchemists

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Artist: Fern Knight

Album: Music for Witches and Alchemists

Label: VHF

Review date: Jan. 11, 2007

It's always seemed like Philadelphia and Providence share some sort of cosmic link. After all both are the louche, lower-rent outliers to much larger metropolises. Both are old, machine-politic corrupt cities. Both house more than their share of prestigious colleges, hemmed in by once-threatening, now gentrifying neighborhoods. And, perhaps because of all these things, both cities have spawned wonderfully dark, eccentric and experimental new folk scenes that are linked sister-city style by cross band memberships, touring history and mutual appreciation. So when Margie Wienk of Fern Knight moved from Providence to Philadelphia recently, she was only going from one warm nest to another, exchanging close neighborly-ness with Alec Redfearn for proximity to the Espers crew. Not that she had to give anything up in the process. All these folks are on Wienk's second CD Music for Witches and Alchemists, an album so good that we can only hope that the Provi-delphia connection continues to flourish.

The first Fern Knight album was more of a solitary endeavor, almost entirely Wienk with producer Mike Corcoran stepping in occasionally, Death Vessel's Joel Thibodeau providing the drums and Redfearn adding accordion to just two tracks. Music for Witches is a much more orchestrated affair, quietly dense and mesmerizing with the interplay of strings, electric guitar, accordion and multiple voices. Redfearn is on nearly every track, mostly playing accordion but occasionally shifting to the weird percussive twang of the jaw harp (in "W. Memphis" particularly). Esper's Otto Hauser plays drums and Greg Weeks (who recorded the album) sings, as does Meg Baird. (Weeks must also be the guitarist behind the electric guitar implosion at "Awake, Angel Snake"'s mid-section, since it sounds a lot like the best part of "Flaming Telepaths.") Timebold's Jesse Sparhawk laces a few songs with delicate harp. All this is to say that there's a fair amount going on, but things never seem cluttered. Wienk's singing remains the centerpiece but sits jewel-like in a more elaborate setting, its soft melancholy made luminous against velvety cello or stately guitar figures.

Like Espers, Wienk uses archaic words and natural images to frame her tales of ordinary life. "Murder of Crows" is as ominous in its imagery ("Like smoke on the horizon...pretty soon they're gonna block out the sun”) as in its shimmery overlay of guitar and tight harmonies. "Lintworm, Part 1" a love-lost lament, draws weight with from swaggering drums and cello counterpoint, but is made weird by its tape worm metaphor and the eerie whine of bowed saw.

In "Marble Grey," perhaps the album's best cut, Wienk's cello has the rugged heft of a baroque cantata, mingling with sad accordion oscillations and mist-blown minor harmonies. Wienk says the cut was inspired by "The White People," a story by Arthur Machen widely considered one of the best in early gothic supernatural fiction. Like Machen, Wienk seems to glimpse the transcendent in the natural, finding cracks in traditional music through which strange surreality can seep.

By Jennifer Kelly

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