Magic Tuber Stringband “Needlefall”

Thrill Jockey, 2023

Improvised Avant-folk with a unique sound and a strong connection to the nature it celebrates.

Magic Tuber Stringband, from North Carolina, are Courtney Werner and Evan Morgan. The duo describe their music as “at the forefront of artists inhabiting the rich, living musical traditions of the Appalachian region, not as preservationists, but as fluent speakers shaping the forms with their inventive new ideas.”

With the second tune their intention for the album becomes clear. ‘Days Of Longing’ a duet for Werner’s fiddle and Morgan’s 12-string guitar starts as an almost ambient soundscape of repeating figures before descending into atonal scrapes of the fiddle strings before resolving to a sudden stop. The clue to what they want to achieve is in their press release. We thought about how artists like Don Cherry, Marion Brown, and Terry Riley would bring people together for free improvisation but also set intentions or prompts and we tried to take a page from their book.”

Invoking those names from Avant-Garde Jazz and Classical worlds sets this album apart from almost every other folk album you’ll hear this year. The Hermit’s Passage’ is straight out of the Riley playbook. Random sounds with nothing identifiable as a tune also point at another of their intentions. “If you spend enough time out in the woods you inevitably see or hear things that are hard to explain. I’ve been in caves where it’s total darkness and you’re enveloped by the disorienting sound of dripping water. The natural sights and sounds in these places are often repetitive, percussive, expressive, sometimes unsettling.” And that is exactly what they have recreated in The Hermit’s Passage.’ The communion with nature continues on ‘Water Dripped Upwards’ which sounds exactly as its title suggests.

The Long-Suffering’ adds clarinet from Crowmeat Bob, which introduces an America Gothic note to the music. As ‘Needlefall’ was recorded in one session with minimal overdubs you have to assume that the occasional fluffed line was left in deliberately to maintain the mood. If so, it works incredibly well.

There are more conventional tunes here as well. Opening piece ‘A Dance on a Sunday Night’ is relatively straightforward Appalachian folk, although the hypnotic repeating lines from the 12-string guitar still hint at innovation. The title piece is another more conventional structure, with Werner’s fiddle producing lines that almost sound like some of Robert Fripp’s more complex guitar work. Touring member Mike DeVito appears with some subtle percussion to drive a rhythmic element to the tune, with Clarinet adding depth to the sound. It does sound for all the world closer to some of King Crimson’s tries at Gamelan-influenced tunes from the 1980s than folk music.

‘Twelfth House’ is a more conventional, although still clearly improvised, tune with fiddle again taking the lead. They close with ‘Piney Woods Burn’ which takes us back to Terry Riley territory with only glimpses of the tune in amongst the undergrowth of improvised playing which this time includes Dan Patridge’s Saw plying.

“Challenging” is often a reviewer’s way of saying unlistenable. Here though the word applies as this is fascinating music (try putting it on headphones for a walk in the woods) and while it may not have heavy rotation it is something that will stick with you. Quite likely you will find yourself coming back to ‘Needlefall’ to relive some of its magic many times.


About Tim Martin 247 Articles
Sat in my shed listening to music, and writing about some of it. Occasionally allowed out to attend gigs.
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