When it comes to making cool collector’s editions, Wist Records is one of the finest. Their jackdaw series (each one a book-sized envelope containing the music and various ephemera) returns with The Crossley Heritage, offering recipients some history along with their sounds. As Wist’s 20th release, it’s an admirable milestone. The package includes a bunch of postcards of different sizes, some small folded posters, a map, and – our favorite – a pair of CD3″s. This format has fallen by the wayside in recent years, and it’s a joy to see it sustained.
John Crossley was a carpet manufacturer who greatly aided the introduction of a rail line to Halifax in 1844. This release cherishes his contribution. The first CD3″, “Engineered”, traces the early history of the line, while “Gratitude” honors the gift that the railway brought to the people: a new ability to “visit the People’s Park of Halifax or the beautiful surrounding hills and moors.” By embedding generous amounts of field recordings into their compositions, The Sly and Unseen (Jonathan Lees and Katie English) bring the stories of Halifax to life. Whether by train or typewriter, bell or breath, these additions allow the listener to enter into a nearly-forgotten world. Throughout their history, Wist Records has always been wistful, and this set stays on that path.
While normally associated with the flute, Katie English (who also records as Isnaj Dui) shifts to the cello here, as she did on last year’s Stone’s Throw. It’s a moody sort of cello that one might characterize as fractured melodic. Lees contributes all manner of appealing textures on various instruments, the most obvious of which is the harmonium. Or at least that’s our suspicion; unlike other duos, The Sly and Unseen is content to erase individual credits.
On “Nothing Is Done Now”, the final track of the first disc, the focus begins to turn in a less impressionistic direction, thanks in large part to the emergence of the xylophone on main melody. This sets up the ensuing “Gratitude” disc, which is by nature a more soothing beast. The work is over, the looms are set, and if only for half a day, it’s off to the surrounding moors. While one can still hear the sound of labor (especially on “King Cross”), a little joy begins to seep in as well. To echo Emily Brontë’s quote from the jackdaw, “Awaken o’er all my dear moorland, West-wind, in thy glory and pride; Oh! call me from valley and lowland, To walk by the hill-torrent’s side.”
The upbeat “Drifting and Drifting” comes across as a vacation day frolic, as twin mallets drum happily on the metal keys. The set’s most elaborate piece, “Another Way of Seeing”, spins merrily as a dance around a maypole. The implication is clear; one might stare at one’s work, disgruntled and worn; or one might contemplate the benefits and breaks as a way to get through the day. Many things have changed since the mid-19th century, but human nature is not one of them; we all yearn to get away, and The Sly and Unseen offer us that opportunity, if only for a fraction of time. (Richard Allen)