A beautiful simplicity.
This is the sort of record we don’t seem to hear too often these days; simple, well-constructed songs, played and sung without excess embellishment or excessive drama. Using simple accompaniment and, in some cases, no instruments at all, this album is a celebration of the human voice and the sort of folk singing that never seems to go out of fashion, and for good reason.
Mary Elizabeth Remington is something of an enigma. Raised in a log cabin in rural Massachusetts it seems she has always sung to herself while going about her daily life, but has never shared her songs on a recording before. In fact, prior to 2013, when she performed at the Kerrville Folk Festival, she had never sung in front of an audience before. She now also works as a ceramicist and teacher at a cultural centre and her songs are clearly rooted in her love of nature and connection to the earth and her rural surroundings. This recording apparently came about because her good friend, Adrianne Lenker, of Brooklyn Indie band Big Thief, insisted they make an album together once she heard Remington’s songs. It was an inspired idea because the two voices pair up beautifully. In addition to Lenker’s voice and sparse acoustic guitar, the duo were joined by another of Big Thief’s lineup, James Krivchenia, who played percussion and handled recording duties, and the ensemble was rounded out with Mat Davidson of Twain, who contributed bass, additional acoustic guitar, steel guitar, and vocals. In keeping with the feel of the songs and the small, artisan performing unit, the album was recorded as live onto a 4 track set up in a cabin in Embudo, New Mexico; hence the album’s title.
This is an album for listening to, with its quiet spirituality and its feel of the raw landscape where it was recorded. The simplicity of the recordings really are quite mesmerising and the blending of the two main voices, Remington and Lenker, truly magical. Remington has a warm, slightly husky contralto voice, which in turn accents the clear purity of Lenker’s higher register. The songs, all written by Remington, apparently start their lives as melodies that come to her as she’s working; simple phrases that she might whistle or hum, slowly building into a complete song. It’s a process that produces some quite entrancing results.
Opening with the track ‘All Words’, there’s a live count in and you’re into this first song that bubbles along a little like a mountain stream, dipping and drifting and swirling on a stripped-back backing of guitars and percussion, with Remington’s voice to the fore and Lenker’s voice drifting in and out like dappled light falling on the stream. Then, by complete contrast, you get the almost completely acapella ‘Dresser Hill’, with the two voices of Remington and Lenker in perfect harmony on a song that feels like a gospel-rooted spiritual. This is really how the album progresses, with a mixture of close harmonies and solo sung pieces that all has the charming feel of a cottage industry construct, along with occasional lapses into laughter and the feeling that this album was as much fun to make as it is to listen to.
The songs themselves really do seem like they’re from another time, yet retain a very modern feel. They have a scatological way about them that makes them difficult to follow at times; they will settle into a groove and then, quite suddenly, seem a little out of kilter, but not in a bad way. It seems unlikely that any of these songs will ever be covered, because they depend so much on Mary Remington’s ability to shoehorn her lyrics into her somewhat odd melodies; you really can’t imagine anyone else singing these songs. The fascination lies in the fact that these melodies fit her voice like a glove and vice versa. A song like ‘Holdfast’, with its strange, fractured percussion and seemingly wayward whistling takes on the feel of a work song, almost punctuated by the sound of a road gang breaking rocks as they shamble along.
The whole album has a wonderful, earthy resonance that is really quite relaxing and easy to let wash over you, yet it can be both unsettling and comforting at the same time. The best songs are, perhaps unsurprisingly, those that deal with the elements – ‘Fire’, ‘Green Grass’, ‘Wind Wind’, ‘Water Song’ – these are clearly songs that resonate with the writer’s own experiences and the importance of the natural world to her. ‘Water Song’ is a real stand out, with the addition of Davidson’s voice on the chorus passage it has an almost hymn-like quality.
The lo-fi nature of this album means it won’t appeal to everyone, but its earthy spirituality and the slightly off-kilter feel of many of these songs give it character and presence that you can’t ignore. If you enjoy the music of the likes of The Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, Dory Previn, and other, slightly left-field folk artists, then Mary Elizabeth Remington will push all your buttons and more.