Folk music comes in many guises, but at its heart is that no matter from where it originates or who sings it, this is music by and of the people – literally, folk’s music. Sometimes it’s passing along a fanciful tale of lost love and fairy queens, on other occasions it may be serenading a bride on her wedding day (providing that hubby-to-be hasn’t had his head turned by the sprite in the former song). Often though these songs are borne of work and the general experience of living. It is fairly easy, still, to imagine what songs swirled around the bars and assorted meeting areas when men built the railroads, farms and communities across America because many of the songs that captured day to day life with, perhaps, the odd fanciful notion of a better life elsewhere, remain with us.
These songs, forged of the condition of the working man, inform What Happens When We Stop, the latest and arguably finest album from the Andrew Weathers Ensemble. At its centre is Weathers’ voice, which is a suitably rugged and gruff, sounding like it has been hewn from the earth itself; not a thing of beauty but one can sense the weariness draped upon it. Although there’s not that much singing on the album, what there is adds an indefinable weight and depth to the music around it, and provides a connection to the pioneers of the past. One can’t imagine the men who hacked and chopped and carved their way across a continent to have been great singers but they would have sung from the heart and it is this feeling that Weathers captures: a line such as ‘Ain’t it hard to love someone who never will love you’ sounds like you could cut into it and count the rings, such is its age. Weathers is probably the first to follow that sentiment with a song called “Southpaw Motherfucker”, however.
The mostly folky instrumentation on the album is expanded by drone, replacing the rapid fiddle sawing that is a familiar sound for many folk ensembles with long bowed tones on violin and cello. This gives the music a sense of unease, as if the connectivity with the past has been broken and something else – something new – has been adopted in its place. So whilst the singing, the sentiments and several of the tunes here have been dragged from the past, much of the music itself has a sheen of freshness upon it, with the sounds from various sources pulled into a cohesive whole; it’s what the Ensemble do, and consequently what makes everything they release worthwhile. What Happens When We Stop comes as a book, with the music a download – I’m reviewing the music in isolation for while the pictures of smalltown, contemporary America are interesting, I struggle to connect what I’m hearing to what I see on the printed page, which feels a little too familiar and safe. By contrast this music is raw and beautiful, like the landscapes the pioneers would have faced; untamed, unknown and wild. (Jeremy Bye)