Footsteps in the snow; a creaky gate; the daily walk begins. For Frances Castle (The Hardy Tree), these excursions took on new meaning during lockdown. More attention was paid to the history of things: an abraded sign, a vintage street lamp, the names of streets, the trails created by former town residents. Inspired by her surroundings, Castle would return home and write music, then play the demos while walking the next day: a cyclical style of composition.
Common Grounds possesses the warmth of all Clay Pipe records, but is more personal than most: a vital exercise that thanks to the field recordings becomes a historical document of its own. The bucolic timbres yield a sense of belonging; the common ground is not only literal, but figurative. These streets were walked by generations before, whose imprints, literal and psychic, remain. Some even endured their own pandemic. In “The Spire of St. Mary’s,” piano and strings wrap around the listener like a page of Scriptural comfort. When churches are closed, sometimes just seeing a spire can be a sacrament.
The track titles serve as snapshots: “Shop Fronts and Parked Cars,” “Mist on the Playing Fields.” When everything is busy, one may forget the value of stillness; but when stillness is enforced, it may take extra effort to appreciate the change as a gift. Castle doesn’t seem to struggle; she folds into her neighborhood as a series of wandering sounds, a headset-to-countryside duet. Was she really this calm all along? One suspects so, as we suspect she knows the name of every happily barking dog. If it was hard to arrive at this mindset, the dissonance is disguised.
The pace quickens in the penultimate piece, only to recede again: a foreshadowing of freedoms restored. Around the world, people are returning to a “new normal,” like stepping back into what one thought was the same stream. The brassy “Up on the Hill” suggests that it might be healthy to continue some pandemic habits, and to extend certain pandemic feelings, in particular a gratitude for connections to history, land and people. When one looks down from atop a hill, the common ground becomes all the more apparent. (Richard Allen)