The Horse's Ha - "The Piss Choir" (Of the Cathmawr Yards)
At a glance, this looks like the longed-for follow-up to Janet Bean’s excellent solo album Dragging Wonder Lake. It also features her singing folk-rooted material in front of a jazz-steeped combo, but this time Bean is not the leader. Jim Elkington, late of the Zincs, wrote most the material, and this record rises and falls according to the strength of his ideas.
The root concept is a promising one – place two contrasting voices, one low and masculine, the other high and feminine, within an ornate acoustic frame. The band is up to the task. Drummer Charles Rumback and upright bassist Nick Macri swing nimbly at high tempos and add judicious ornamentation to the slower tunes. Lonberg-Holm is in fine form as an ensemble player, spiking sweet bowed melodies with hints of vinegar dissonance. When he cuts loose, he’s even better; the fire and the readiness to push the music rather than elegantly render it that imbues his exchanges with Rumback on the closer “Map Of Stars” with welcome fire shows what the rest of the album is missing.
But Elkington, who has previously worked in more pop-oriented contexts, exerts a tempering influence that is just what this band doesn’t need. He brings a decent voice pitched in a register that contrasts appealingly with Bean’s, a swell guitar tone, and impeccable taste; if someone offered to sell you an update of Astral Weeks with dashes of bossa nova, Davey Graham, Leonard Cohen, and Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris stirred in, you’d reach for your wallet, wouldn’t you? But aside from a sparkling break on “The Piss Choir,” his guitar never turns up the heat. Which would be OK if the lyrics or vocal performances offered other rewards, but they don’t do enough to push this record over the top.
Ellington and Bean’s voices braid pleasant timbres that sound quite right sailing over the band’s strum and shuffle, but they’re curiously lacking in the chemistry that separates necessary from nice. Every note’s in place, but the feeling isn’t there. That’s probably because it’s hard to locate the emotional center of gravity in Elkington’s obviously worked-over but uninvolving lyrics. The album title is taken from Dylan Thomas, more testimony to his discrimination and ambition. But his lyrics never grab you and make you care, and neither does this record. Instead it presents you with a pretty picture of a lost opportunity.