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(Zoë Records 1024 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/7/2004)
It's hard to tell exactly where the concept of so-called remixes came from. The practice of sonically scrambling existing recordings has been around since at least the 1980s, and grew out of the dance scene. It was during the 1980s that synthesizer technology and electronic drum machines came into their own and musicians realized that it was easy to create dance beats by just turning on the machines and fiddling with the controls. Around the same time, technology appeared that allowed one to take a recording of a sound and manipulate it into being the voice of an instrument. Initially hailed as a way to make fascinating new sounds, sampling soon became another excuse for people taking the works of others and piecing them together, rather than making new music, or indeed even playing real instruments.
From that description, you can probably infer that I usually take a dim view of sampling and remixing. Most of the time, in an effort to transform music into danceable form, it's generally dumbed down, and often the results are outright plagiarism. So when I saw a new release called Alan Lomax's Southern Journey Remixed by a group called Tangle Eye, I cringed, and was ready to rail against another effort to destroy the integrity of some hallowed music in the interests of commerce. But it did not turn out that way.
Alan Lomax, of course, was one of America's great folklorists of the 20th Century. He spent decades travelling the country, often in the Deep South, making field recordings of traditional, usually amateur musicians, carrying on genuine folk music, the songs and styles that were handed down from one generation to the next. Lomax was one of the principal catalysts for rise of popularity of folk music in the 1950s and early 1960s. His comprehensive set of field recordings inspired a generation of young performers to take up folk music -- and in the days before Bob Dylan spurred the notion of doing original songs -- to stick with traditional music, and to shun any attempt at altering it. So over the years, Lomax's work has come to be thought of as a kind of definitive inventory of traditional music, an archive of preservation, now held at the Library of Congress. So using this sacred repository as a source for sampling would seem like a sacrilege. But, given the revival of interest in traditional music, thanks to the popularity of the soundtrack from the movie O Brother Where Art Thou?, which did include one of Lomax's recordings, it was perhaps inevitable that Lomax's work became sliced and diced by the samplers. Already, the pop artist Moby has used a sample from the Lomax archive.
But what we have in the new recording by Tangle Eye is a most pleasant surprise. Tangle Eye is the brainchild of two New Orleans musicians, Scott Billington and Steve Reynolds, both of whom are sensitive to the traditions, and both are used to working with veteran musicians. Billington served as the producer of many first-rate straight-out blues albums by some of the masters in the genre. And rather than take the Lomax recordings and throw them into a digital sampler and sequence them like a typical dance track, they brought in some fine New Orleans-based musicians from jazz and the blues to play real instrumentation. Among the guests are jazz and blues pianist Henry Butler, bassist George Porter of the venerable New Orleans band the Meters, jazz drummer Johnny Vidacovich, trombonist Delfayo Marsalis, of the Marsalis family, bluesman Corey Harris, and even banjo virtuoso Tony Trischka.
Billington and Reynolds used mainly a cappella recordings from the Lomax Archive, such as field hollers, work songs from prisoners, and a couple of recordings from the Georgia Sea Islands. They constructed instrumental tracks around them, often adding jazzy chord changes, while usually preserving the rhythmic feel of the original recordings. In fact, there are only a few of the remixed tracks that could be considered dance material. One is an unlikely combination of an old fishing song with a reggae beat, while another maintains the sound of the prisoner chopping with his axe in time to the music, and uses that as part of the rhythmic motif. Billington and Reynolds also go further and sometimes combine two very differed field recordings in a single track which ends up sounding remarkably coherent. The result is a very interesting and enjoyable album that can change one's perception of sampling.
Opening is one of the most familiar of folk songs John Henry, renamed John Henry's Blues. The original 1959 recording was of a Mississippi convict named Ed Lewis who was singing as he chopped wood. You can hear his axe woven into the percussion sound. The musical setting, with Henry Butler on the piano, takes a kind of laid-back, funky New Orleans feel. Tony Trischka makes an appearance on the banjo. The result is quite enjoyable and very tasteful. <<>>
A track called Drownded is woven around a recording, also made in 1959, of one Mrs. Sidney Carter, apparently recorded on her front porch, with insects and other sounds in the background. Once again, Tangle Eye took the simple folk song and elevated to something quite interesting, with a bluesy, jazzy setting with the unexpected appearance of a Dobro, as played by Nashville studio musician Rob Ickes. <<>>
The first of the tracks that weaves together two different recordings from the Lomax Archive is Heaven. The bluesy guitar is the original recording of Mississippi Fred McDowell doing Wished I was in Heaven Sitting Down, and there is a Gospel group doing a similar song, I Wished I Was in Heaven. It's one of the few straight-out dance tracks, with the drum sequence. It's also one of the few actual performances by co-producer Billington, who plays the bluesy harmonica. <<>>
Another now very familiar folk song included on this CD is O Death, made famous by Ralph Stanley in the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. The singer here is named Bessie Jones a traditional musician from the Georgia Sea Islands. The instrumental backing, with the doleful fiddle played by Dirk Powell, also builds on the spirit of the original version. <<>>
Perhaps the most unlikely musical combination on the CD is Chantey, based in a 1960 recording of a group called the Bright Light Quartet, described as being Virginia fishermen. The musical backing is an infectious reggae beat, that works surprisingly well, but is no doubt very far removed from the original performance. <<>>
About as close to a hip-hip beat, the usual destination of remixers, is Parchman Blues, named after the infamous Mississippi prison. The original vocalist is a prisoner named C.B. "88" Cook, recorded in 1947. Delfayo Marsalis adds a nice touch with his trombone. <<>>
Another juxtaposition of two of the Lomax field recordings from the late 1950s comes on the track Hangman. It combines Appalachian ballad singer Almeida Riddle with a Mississippi fife and drum group. The instrumentation added by Tangle Eye, such as the vintage electric piano played by Billington and the fiddle, performed by Ron Stewart, is a curious but appealing mix. <<>>
The CD ends with its most energetic, and indeed frenetic track. Soldier is based on a performance by the Gospel group The Peerless Four, recorded in 1960, apparently in a church with everyone clapping along. That is woven into the rhythmic line, with keyboard man Davell Crawford providing an appropriately righteous performance. <<>>
While there are those who think that the remix fad is a great art form, there are others of us who consider the field the realm of plagiarizers and people incapable of coming up with their own music. It's a rare occasion when the concept works as well as it does on Tangle Eye's debut release Alan Lomax's Southern Journey Remixed, especially given the reverence accorded by many to the source material. Of course, folk music purists will likely still consider this a bastardization. But unlike most other remixers and sample jockeys, Tangle Eye consists of real musicians playing real instruments with a respect for the original source material, as well as a sense of adventure. Co-producers Scott Billington and Steve Reynolds are also very creative in their use of the samples of the original recordings, not only combining them with the contemporary instrumentation, but melding disparate original recordings in interesting ways. The result is a very satisfying album that is a great compendium of sonic juxtapositions.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The field recordings are well restored, and the mix on the contemporary instrumentation is quite good, combining relative clarity with clever studio effects. Usually on this kind of project, the dynamic range is abysmal with everything pumped up to be maximally loud all the time. Although this CD is still somewhat compressed, it is not nearly as bad as others with some room for the musical ebb and flow.
Some of us may still not consider most remixing an art, but Tangle Eye's treatment of the Alan Lomax field recordings is an exception, embodying both creativity and taste.
(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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