Devin Hoff – Voices From the Empty Moor (Songs of Anne Briggs): Album Review

Devin Hoff on largely instrumental revisions of a largely trad. arr. folk canon that surprise and subvert.

devin hoff

Release date: 12th November 2021

Label: Kill Rock Stars

Formats: CD/Vinyl/Digital

So here’s the deal: infatuated by the legacy of Anne Briggs, that iconic folk singer of the 60s and, as has been suggested, in part the inspiration for the Richard Thompson song, Beeswing, how best can this be represented? That is, if you are an award winning double bassist, playing both solo and with such maverick talents as Yoko Ono, Nels Cline and Japanese-American band, Cibo Matto.

The answer, of course, is an album of largely instrumental music, predominantly bass, enlisting support from equivalently arcane talents as Jim White (The Dirty Three) and Emmett Kelly (The Cairo Gang). Given most the songs were originally acapella, it helps that you can call on some singers to help out on some of the tracks, which is how Sharon van Etten and Julia Holter get also to appear. If any preconceptions are still lingering, the fact that the record is on the Kill Rock Stars label, home at any one time to Deerhoof, Sleater-Kinney and the Cribs, orthodox fare this is never going to be.

Many of the songs and melodies are well known standards of the tradition and covered by many, Briggs acknowledged by most to be the most sublime of interpreters. Every year or so someone does a cover and she gets remembered again, both her voice and the mythology of gypsy caravans and rejecting the music industry for a life of isolation in the Hebrides, each holding some core of truth. This will happen again, as Robert Plant, a longterm fan, and Alison Krauss tackle her Go Your Way for their forthcoming Raise The Roof project. (And, yes, of course that song features here too.)

She Moved Through The Fair is the opener, strongly associated with the Irish Traveller community and there can scarcely be anyone unfamiliar with the tune, included in the repertoire, credited or otherwise, of Led Zeppelin and Shane McGowan, Rory Gallagher and Mike Oldfield, let alone many more of a folkier persuasion. Here it is carried in broad sweeps of bowed bass, a lower drone joining it, dipping in and out of a low harmony, with feedback as it closes. Stunning, and laying one fine table of expectation. This is followed by the aforesaid Go Your Way, with Sharon van Etten’s clear tones a contrast to the, this time, plucked strings initially. The middle eight has further soaring bow work, the melancholy framed thereby.

By now you are guessing the overall template, and it continues much this way. Hoff has both the fingers to pluck both at his strings and your mood, the then double tracking, at least, with bow to provide counterpoint and agreeable conflict. Julia Holter, another pure voiced singer joins for Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, sounding like a choirboy, in this context a good thing, with some disturbing percussion and vocal effects to whip up menace. Shannon Lay adds huskier tones for By the Water, that sufficient to alter the mood, especially in double tracked harmonies. The only other vocal comes from the other ‘best known’ tune, Blackwaterside, with Emmett Kelly adopting his slightly faltering tenor to good effect.

Elsewhere it is the instrumental talents of his other guests to add diversity to what might otherwise become too overbearing. Howard Wiley plays a gritty raspy style of improv jazz saxophone, it breezing into Mae Bonny Lad like rainfall in a drought, a real boost to this project, almost the highlight, certainly a centrepiece. Not dissimilarly, the oud of Alejandro Farha gives an unexpected middle eastern frisson to a medley of The Snow It Melts the Soonest and Bonny Lad, coming in predominantly for the second tune. Jim White, no stranger to an occasional unexpected pairing: think his Xylouris White collaborations, makes for an almost conventional jazz trio, with Hoff adding guitar to his instruments played. Willie O’Winsbury is such delicate air that, when White’s drums come in, it transforms the tune from meander to purpose, delivering the beauty inherent. Vocals are unnecessary. If you know the song, your memory will fill in the blanks, if not you can just enjoy the ride.

Closing track, The Lowlands, like the first, is Hoff alone, pairing again bow with pluck, a perfect ennui to close the album as it started, the final notes a low growl of warning.

As I suggest, this is a far from typical release and is beyond any grasp of categorisation. Folkies may pick up on the Briggs connection, guitarists on the presence of the Jansch and Page identifiable links. Jazz and improv aficionados may be familiar with the names offered and others may just take a punt, seeing the names van Etten and Holter. Some may even be sufficiently intrigued by this review and the track offered below. Either which way, it is worth that punt. It may be one of the more unusual records you buy this year, but I guarantee you will find it lingering long past a listen.

Willie O’Winsbury feat. Jim White:

Devin Hoff online: Website / Youtube

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