Snakefarm: Songs from My Funeral
by George Graham
(RCA 67687 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/17/99)
These days, it's almost a given that bands do their own music, or at least new music written for them. The measure of creativity is usually originality of the compositions. But how music is arranged can also be just as important to the sound. Indeed, arranging can be as artistically fulfilling a process as creating original tunes. This week, we have an album whose whole concept is its unusual arrangements of familiar songs. The group is called Snakefarm, and their CD bears the title Songs from My Funeral.
The premise behind this album is to present old, instantly recognizable, traditional folk songs, many which were the mainstays of the hootenannies of the 1960s, and give them a very different treatment, with hip-hop and techno-dance beats, and a dark, urban, sound reminiscent of a collision among so-called acid-jazz, rave and film noire. The result is fascinating, and on the whole, quite creative and artistically successful.
Snakefarm is a duo whose better-known member is vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Anna Domino. She is joined by her long-time musical and marital partner Belgian-born guitarist Michel Delory.
Ms. Domino had a peripatetic youth. Born in Tokyo, she grew up moving among Ann Arbor, MI; Florence, Italy; and Ottawa, Canada. Though she was part of the alternative rock scene, her parents' affinity for old folk songs made them a part of her consciousness. Based in New York and spending time in Europe, Ms. Domino released four albums and two EPs for a Belgian label between 1984 and 1990, which were compiled into a kind of best-of CD and released in the US in 1996 under the title Favorite Songs from the Twilight Years. Delory was a part of her band.
Ms. Domino says that Snakefarm had its start in New York in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1995. Domino was singing some of the old folk songs of her youth, and thinking it would be interesting to give them contemporary arrangements. The project was kicking around for a couple of years, with Domino and Delory recording songs from time to time, with some being released in Europe in 1997.
Now, after the pair moved from New York to Los Angeles, they have released the first full Snakefarm album. The title, Songs from My Funeral, comes from the fact that almost every one of the old songs are about death, even a lullaby. Back before the days of radio, movies and that other medium, getting together and singing folk songs was a significant form of entertainment. And just like today, sex and violence did tend to help the popularity. So not surprisingly, the old ballads often have lots of juicy stuff. The songs Domino and Delory chose tend to be tragedies, with somebody usually dying in the end. So in a way, the distinctly dark quality of the arrangements can be more appropriate for the lyrics than a strumming acoustic guitar. They include some classics, such as St. James Infirmary, Frankie and Johnny, Streets of Laredo, and John Henry. Some of the arrangements are more successful than others, and going for a sound like this invites incorporating faddish stylistic elements that are likely to sound dated in a couple of years. But the overall result is quite impressive. Ms. Domino's cool, detached, but sultry vocals are first-rate throughout, and the prominence of a jazzy acoustic bass tempers the drums loops and samples.
Also appearing on the CD are bassist Paul Dugan, who adds much to the sound, guitarist Stephen Ulrich and saxophonist Paul Shapiro.
Songs from My Funeral gets under way with one of the all-time classic folk songs of tragedy, St. James Infirmary. In addition to being a staple of folksingers, the song is also a mainstay of New Orleans Dixieland bands. Snakefarm's arrangement is light-years from either style, with its hip-hop beat and scratchy rhythm samples. Snakefarm does not just apply the heavy beat to the song, they come up with some interesting musical departures. <<>>
One of the most downright creative arrangements comes on Rising Sun, which most people recognize as House of the Rising Sun, a song that saw life during the 1960s as a hit by Eric Burdon and the Animals. Eclecticism is the keyword on Snakefarm's rendition, with everything from the funky drum-machine driven beat to a Dobro and Spanish guitar in instrumentation. <<>>
Deriving from the same origins as St. James Infirmary is Laredo, Snakefarm's shorthand name for the cowboy ballad Streets of Laredo. According to Domino, both songs trace back to a 16th Century British ballad called The Unfortunate Rake, about an character who dies of hard living. In some versions of Streets of Laredo, the cowboy apparently dies of syphilis. In Snakefarm's treatment, the guy gets shot. Musically, it's also nicely done, with Ms. Domino's vocal being especially appealing. <<>>
Perhaps one of the best-known American folk songs of all time is John Henry, about a railroad man who manages to beat a new steam-driven hammer but, of course, dies in the process. This arrangement is not quite as effective as some of the others. The various ingredients can seem a bit of a hodgepodge. <<>>
One of my favorite treatments on the album is Frankie and Johnny, another song that no respectable folk concert in the 1960s would be without. Domino and Delory give the song, about an unfaithful lover being shot by the women on whom he was cheating, a kind of film noire quality, sounding like a mutant soundtrack for a old murder movie. <<>>
The group's approach to Black Girl, another American folk song about the death of a lover, takes two different courses, running from the mostly acoustic, drumless sections at the beginning and the end <<>> to the very hard-edged part with the strong beat and the annoyingly trendy distorted vocals. <<>>
Yet another mainstay of the 1960s folk days, Tom Dooley, is given probably Snakefarm's quirkiest arrangement with the spacey guitar effects and an accordion, played by Ms. Domino. <<>>
The album ends with Pretty Horses, whose lyrics are essentially a lullaby but like many a fairy tale, it has a rather gruesome twist. Probably because it is a lullaby, Snakefarm decided to give the song their most aggressive arrangement with a pounding beat and grungy guitars. <<>>
When Anna Domino was working toward making this project, she spent a good deal of time in libraries researching these familiar old folk songs, trying to find definitive versions, so she could get the lyrics right. She discovered that because they are folk songs, there were dozens of versions of each. So in that sense, Snakefarm is perfectly justified in adding a late 1990s approach to these songs and essentially passing them on to the next generation, in the classic folk process. Their treatments, however are almost the antithesis of a folksinger with his acoustic guitar. As a folk music fan, I find it interesting to hear the variations of the lyrics that Domino chooses, which are not always the most familiar. But of course, the most fascinating part of this record are the arrangements, which are about as far from the expected versions of the songs as you can get. And yet, most of the time, this unusual mix of traditional folk with acid jazz and trip-hop, works remarkably well. Part of it has to do with the fact that these great old songs have persisted to this day precisely because their quality has let them stand the test of time. But a great deal of this album's artistic success comes from Snakefarm's innovations and very creative arranging, taking full advantage of the studio's technology to put a completely different spin on the songs.
In terms of audio quality, the album's is in keeping with the very in-your-face heavily-compressed sound that is typical of this genre. It works well for the style, though the studio effects are sometimes a bit overdone.
Snakefarm's newly-released debut CD Songs from My Funeral is definitely a concept album, but it's an intriguing one that makes for listening that is both interesting and quite danceable.
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