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All those 20th-century unknowns whose rough voices are captured on field recordings—why did they sing? They weren’t expecting Berry Gordy—or even Simon Cowell—to sweep into their cabins, validate their melismas, and put their tricked-out visages on the cover of People. Maybe some were known as music-makers in their communities, but surely they didn’t make music for stardom. They sang to entertain themselves, to worship, to teach their children. Then the Lomaxes and Warners came along with their reel-to-reels and preserved them for scholars, exploiters, and Tim Eriksen.
Not that Eriksen has such an elevated view of his place in music history. Sure, Cold Mountain, for which the once and future Cordelia’s Dad–ster helped arrange the shape-note singing that forms the Civil War soap’s most credible parts, has turned the spotlight his way again. But Eriksen’s goal with his second solo album, the new Every Sound Below, seems to be to present himself as someone who’s all about the music—or, even better, as someone whose art is so pure that he doesn’t need to bother reflecting on his own image. Of course, it’s not the goal that’s surprising here—it’s that, for a guy with a publicist, a label contract, and tickets to the Academy Awards, Eriksen carries it off pretty well.
Every Sound Below is serious business, with its black, bleak cover; its copious and folklorically correct shout-outs to predecessors; and, for those in the know, the specter of Eriksen’s stern-browed visage and scholarly depth looming over. Yet Eriksen’s best-known musical passion—shape-note, or Sacred Harp, singing—began as a commonplace, populist event: Benjamin Franklin White’s 1844 songbook presented, in lieu of musical notes, a system of named shapes that untrained singers could easily employ to create a joyful noise.
I tried shape-note singing in February, at a workshop run by Eriksen’s former bandmate Peter Irvine. It was supposed to have been Eriksen’s workshop, but he’d been called off to Los Angeles to help with Oscar night’s Mountain music. However easy the structure was supposed to be, I was pretty well stumped; I soon gave up on matching diamonds and ovals to “mi”s and “sol”s and fell back on harmonic instincts honed by decades of mainline-Protestant hymns and musical-comedy chorus scores. But I did grasp one important point: the unbridled energy with which the sound should leap from the singers’ bodies. That I could do.
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And that Eriksen can do, as well: Witness “Brethren Song,” one of the non–Steve Albini–produced tracks on Cordelia’s Dad’s most recent album, 2002’s What It Is, and one of the most trad-sounding things the eclectic folk/punk/jazz/pop/rock outfit has produced of late. Though Every Sound Below doesn’t contain any harmony singing—it was played entirely by Eriksen on guitar, fiddle, banjo, and vocals, with no overdubs—the robust sincerity of the Sacred Harp shines through on tracks such as “The Stars Their Match” and “Occom’s Carol (O Sight of Anguish).”
Eriksen employs not just sincerity, but also an appealing detachment. “The Southern Girl’s Reply,” collected by longtime folklorists Anne and Frank Warner in North Carolina, comes from a young woman to her Union suitor, rejecting him because of the traumas the Civil War has wrought. A singer such as Britain’s sweet-voiced traditionalist Kate Rusby would have made this song a thing of beauty. But Eriksen’s unaccented tenor, so clearly not the voice of any Southern girl, treats her dialogue as something closer to a court document read by a disinterested bailiff: “But there’s no hatred in my heart, nor cold, nor righteous pride,” says the woman. “For many’s the gallant soldier fell upon the other side.” Amid her report of her brother’s death, this comes off as coldly parroted solace of the most authentic kind: The constraints of courtesy and patriotism are more suffocating and painful than any corset, and there’s no beauty about them.
On another Civil War–era song, “The Cumberland and the Merrimac,” an account of the fateful meeting of the two boats is swept along on a melody sung in unison by Eriksen and his acoustic guitar, the occasional drone note the only variation in the progression of the song to its deadly climax. The guitar takes the lead; Eriksen is listening, following, as he sings. He’s willing to let his instruments do all the talking throughout Every Sound Below, especially on the happier numbers. “The Soldier’s Return” is a jaunty Anglo-American dance tune played by Eriksen on his grandfather’s 100-year-old violin. (“I guess I’m part of a tradition of questionable fiddling,” he comments overmodestly in the liner notes.) And on the banjo tune “Bassett Creek,” he manages back-breaking speed without electric volume or Merlefest-main-stage theatrics; it’s spectacularly natural.
Not that Eriksen can’t venture into the unnatural and still pull it off. “A Tiny Crown,” six tracks in, is where many of Every Sound Below’s Pete Seeger–buying listeners will be jarred: Over a peculiar, perhaps Indian-inspired guitar (Eriksen studied classical vina music in college), we get a voice that, for once, and suitably, has some ego behind it. Here the man frets, in a strangely phrased drone alternating with whistling, over what happens when sea monkeys escape: “Once in my childhood bed I found,” he tells us, “a tiny scepter.”
Similarly, on the banjo-based “John Colby’s Hymn,” Eriksen suddenly breaks into Tuvan-style overtone singing—an eerie sound that I originally thought came from a jew’s-harp. “It can sound mystical,” notes Eriksen of the approach, “but it’s just physics.” Here, and on the imagistic, self-penned title track, he somehow keeps these physics from sounding contrived.
It helps that he also keeps them fairly brief. Every Sound Below’s weakest number, “Two Sisters,” another song collected by the Warners, suffers from its length—and from a mannered and somewhat wobbly-pitched delivery that screams Unitarian church basement. But it’s the closest thing to a lapse in what is mostly a carefully sustained portrait of art for art’s sake.
If the Eriksen who hovers at the edges of that portrait remains a little elusive, that probably suits the singer just fine. The voice on Every Sound Below is neither a regular-guy voice, like that of “Yankee John Galusha in Minerva, New York,” the source singer of “The Cumberland and the Merrimac,” nor that of an exhortative, professionally sincere Springsteen. In fact, the best analogue for Eriksen is a completely different kind of guy with a guitar: that keening, nasally Kurt Cobain, in that brief period before he began to believe that Nirvana was his personal hell—a man singing not for the spotlight but for himself.CP