You might not have noticed it but Dylan Carlson is a real Anglophile; his work with Earth has occasionally referenced English folk stories, songs and lore but his latest persona, the mysterious Drcarlsonalbion, is the strongest representation yet of his fixation with our Fair Isles. If you happened to hear the extremely rare debut outing of Drcarlsonalbion, the cassette-only Edward Kelley’s Blues (a lo-fi release that recalled the atmosphere of early Earth recordings) you may be expecting a similarly abstract experience on La Strega and the Cunning Man in the Smoke. Think again. Recorded during a recent trip to England whilst conducting research and making field recordings at reputed fairy-sights and along the muddy banks of the River Thames, this collection of songs for the Latitudes Sessions is an elegant, meditative and charming introduction to Carlson’s Britain, a kingdom of faeries and magik.
Carlson’s love of British folk records is well-documented, and the influence of Fairport Convention really shines through on La Strega and the Cunning Man in the Smoke, both in terms of song selection and atmosphere. Largely a collection of covers, the record traverses the new and the olde in an incredibly cohesive fashion. Arrangements of traditional songs such as “The Faery Round” and “Reynardine” sit side by side with more contemporary songs by the Kinks and fellow grunge-era survivor PJ Harvey, but as the album plays out, songs written centuries apart find common ground thanks to Carlson’s penchant for ambiguity in both storytelling and melody. The Drcarlsonalbion project also has a real asset in singer Teresa Colamonaco whose voice is a plaintive spectre on these recordings, capable of bringing out emotion and menace in the songs in perfect harmony with Carlson’s simple, lush guitar-playing.
Title track (and the album’s sole original composition) “La Strega and The Cunning Man in the Smoke” will sound immediately familiar to fans of Earth’s most recent record, Demons of Light, Angels of Darkness Pt II, featuring a cyclical, understated guitar loop which creates an intoxicating air of hypnosis while Colamonaco reads passages from some mysterious and (no-doubt) dusty old poem. The almost nonchalant manner of her delivery, combined with her hard-to-place accent and the timeless sound of the guitar lends real gravity to the words, disembodied as they may be in this new musical setting. The traditional Elizabethan composition “The Faery Round” also gets a radical reworking, Carlson giving each individual note plenty of breathing space to cast its spell on the listener while a bed of yearning, droning feedback lulls you into a waking-coma over the course of thirteen-minutes.
A truly stunning rendition of the folk ballad “Reynardine” follows, and though modelled closely on Fairport Convention’s version it has enough of its own shimmering ambience to stand its ground. Colamonaco turns-in a poignant vocal performance, the cavernous reverb on her voice adding an element of vulnerability and tragedy to the already devastating Celtic melody. Elsewhere, a stripped-back take on the already-sparse Richard and Linda Thompson song “Night Comes In” manages to successfully capture the mystical inspiration of the song’s origin. Again, this can be attributed to Colamonaco’s naturally sultry voice, the singer sounding like she was born to sing lines like “Night comes in like some cool river/ How can there be another day?”
The most unlikely cover here – purely because of how contemporary it is – is “Last Living Rose”, a song taken from PJ Harvey’s 2011 album Let England Shake. But then again the song illustrates themes at the core of English life and history – relying on past glories, the perpetual greyness of the weather and a culture in the process of disintegrating and reinventing itself. It’s a song that both praises and condemns England, one that’s in love with it despite it’s inherent flaws. Indeed, there’s nothing more British than self-depreciation and for an Anglophile like Carlson, Harvey’s “Last Living Rose” may be one of the finest and most lyrically succinct summations of this phenomenon. Carlson even covers a song from The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society, perhaps the most inherently English rock record ever produced. From fairies to quaint village tearooms, Dylan’s got England pegged, or at least some warped take on it.
The idea behind the Lattitudes Sessions concept is to give artists “the opportunity to spend some time recording something spontaneous, collaborative, fun or experimental” in one day, and in this sense La Strega and the Cunning Man in the Smoke is not only impressive but also a huge success. Anyone who caught Drcarlsonalbion’s debut performances in London earlier this year will recognise these songs, only slightly embellished here with the benefit of some studio layering. The intimate nature of the compositions and the interplay between Carlson’s guitar and Teresa Colamonaco’s voice is still very much at the heart of the record’s appeal and the results are often enchanting. Depending on your preference you may feel that the cover of “Wicked Annabella” (which is dead-centre in the tracklisting) is either a welcome break in the atmosphere or an ill-advised diversion from it but as a whole the album is a fantastic snapshot of an artist’s fascination with, and interpretation of, this Fair Isle’s mythical history. Ever the pioneer, Carlson may have just invented faery doome folke.
Scribed by: Tom McKibbin