A Warm and Yeasty Corner
Alastair Roberts' indie-folk band Appendix Out's new E.P., 'A Warm and Yeasty Corner,' is a collection of 5 covers of mostly British-folk songs from 30-40 years ago, performed in generally the same style as the originals. This doesn't sound too interesting does it? Well, it's really not, however, if you are a fan of Drag City 'folk,' i.e. Palace, Edith Frost, and Appendix Out's own original albums of course, you may want to learn more about where their particular style of music comes from. I'll tell you straight-up that British-folk from the 60s is distinctly different from American-folk, and it's conclusions are different as well. In a nutshell, British-folk, which peaked as a renaissance in the 60s, was an amalgamation of the guitar/string music, hymn, and common song from the 'old days' of the British Isles, presented in a form not yet stylistically melded with the Afro-Carribean/African-American music that had and would continue to revolutionize the music of America in the 20th century, phew...! So, if you are a Wasp like me, and are starving for some roots, look here.
These days, because our world has become so small and it is so rare that cultures can really germinate, what a band covers is more important than how it is done. What I mean to say is that the fringes of ones' particular tastes and what one sees as beautiful say a lot about a person. Look at personal ads for instance (er, no, I don't read them...), you have to say 'my favorite things to do are dipping acorns in wax, wearing patent-leather sandals in Hong Kong, and watching 'Married with Children' with my chinchilla, Roger' to be noticed anymore. It's too true. The same applies to bands doing covers. A simple 'Johnny B. Goode' won't do anymore.
Like Yo La Tengo's excellent album of covers, 'Fakebook' (1990, Barnone), 'Yeasty Corner's' choice of covers shows the span of Alistair Roberts defined taste (good in my opinion!) and to a lesser extent, his ability to interpret. All songs are delivered in Appendix Out's desolate and soft-throated style with sparse acoustic guitar and piano. Coincidentally, most of the original versions of the songs are pretty soft- throated themselves. If anything, we can infer that these are songs that have in one way or another influenced Roberts style of singing, a voice which if anything can most be likened to Bert Jansch's.
'Yeasty Corner' begins with 'Window Over the Bay,' a Vashti Bunyan song from some 35 years ago in grand old England. Bunyan's one and only album was rediscovered and rereleased last year after being mega-obscure for all these years. Bunyan's music is the softest, most non-African influenced folk music I have ever heard. Roberts' choice of one of her songs is therefore fitting stylistically and shows good marks for obscureness. Not a particularly strong choice, Bunyan's 'Just a Diamond Day' being a ten-times better song, it wins double points for obscureness for being obscure within obscure, even consciously, as there is no way it could have influenced a young Roberts, because it was only released last year.
Another selection, 'A Very Cellular Song' by The Incredible String Band (members of which played on Vashti Bunyan's record 35 years ago) wins similar marks for taste and obscurity. Of particular importance here is that by choosing to do The Incredible String Band, Roberts allies himself with one of the most criminally underrated musical acts ever. I.S.B.'s two landmark albums, 1967's '5000 Spirits' and 1968's 'The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter' (from which 'A Very Cellular Song' is culled) contain some of the most wonderfully liberating, albeit strange (but not hippy-dippy) compositions I have ever heard. Robert's appropriates some of I.S.B.'s signature 'wyrd-ness' into this cover, such as the addition of drones and hand percussion to the acoustic guitar and piano. There is no interpretation here though, and all we are left with is a lesser version of the original and some helpful name dropping.
Along with this era of folk, Roberts takes a pass at 'Sally Free and Easy,' a song important to the tradition of British folk as it was recorded by both Pentangle (of whom the aforementioned Bert Jansch was a prominent member) and Davy Graham, two of the heaviest hitters from this tradition (along with Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Anne Briggs, John Martyn, etc.). Robert's take on this song is tasteful in a journeyman's sense. He is digging-up some of the anglo-roots of the music he plays with Appendix Out and saying essentially, 'we are in this tradition,' in the same sense that The Beatles, The Stones, and The Beach Boys all LOVED Chuck Berry and ripped him off tirelessly in their early days. Again, there is no interpretation here, and hearing Roberts, you may think you are stepping back to 1963 (except he doesn't play the guitar like those amazing cats did then, i.e. Jansch, Renbourn, Thompson, Graham.)
Which leaves us with the high points of the album, Robert's cover of 'The First Time Ever I Saw your Face.' I was mostly familiar with Roberta Flack's 1975 version of this song, but I have learned that it has been covered by over 100 artists, from the aforementioned Bert Jansch to The Temptations. Nonetheless, we are dealing with cultural relevance here, so I will deal with the most famous version, Flack's. Robert's manages to take a song that most of us probably think of as AM pap and show it to us in a different light. This is how a good cover should be done. Take Johnny Cash's cover of Beck's 'Rowboat,' - I mean imagine that! And it's so incendiary. Since I have learned that Jansch does this song too, this point is not as strong. However, Robert's take is lovely and winsome at heart, with compelling pacing, and it doesn't seem like he's trying to say, 'look, I'm in this tradition.' I think fans of Indie-folk need to check this track out (along with the original versions of the aforementioned songs).
In conclusion, the 5th track and final selection, and the only contemporary selection is 'Josephine' by The Magnetic Fields (from 1991's 'The Wayward Bus'). This is a folk interpretation of a band that is so far beyond folk in many ways, but yet very loyal to their own tradition (Phil Spector through Human League through Nancy Griffith, if you can dig that path!) Robert's take at this song is romantic and endearing, and may serve as a live treat to those savvy to the Field's catalogue (hell, or otherwise, I didn't know this song and if I heard Robert's playing it in the subway I'd say 'Damn! That's a great song.' If anything, the significance to the inclusion of this track is that Robert's is contributing to the canonization of Merritt as one of the great songwriters in recent times. While The Magnetic Fields' songs are so heavily stylized at times (especially before '69 Love Songs,' it is valid to recognize that their material is so strong, that it can be interpreted in any idiom, including folk. Heck, I heard Mary Lou Lord playing 'I Don't Want to Get Over You' in the subway last year. What does that say?
Well, keep an eye on Appendix Out. These cats attract some heavy hitters - even Sean O'Hagan worked on their last LP. I'll be curious to see what they're up to next.
© 2002 Jonathan Donaldson
Appendix Out: 'A Warm and Yeasty Corner' is out now on Shingle Street