That ‘Family Songbook’ sounds so routinely Haden Triplets; just like we might expect it to if we’d heard (and enjoyed) their first album on Third Man Records, is perhaps something of a wonder. Despite the heft of the history, influences and associations that the sisters lug around with them their character still manages to shine remarkably brightly through the haze of the record. This has to be something that we would welcome from any artist and any record, indeed if it weren’t verging so close to being a ‘management speak’ cliché we might laud the LP’s ‘authenticity’. In this case however it is perhaps not always to the benefit of the record, but more of this later.
Beginning with its title ‘Family Songbook’, this collection conjures visions of a musical time and space that borders the nostalgic with its choice of material and its adoption of the musical and cultural mores of approaching 100 years of American musical roots from pure mountain folk and bluegrass to urban jazz via any musical branch road they can find on the way.
This journey has been fuelled by the sisters’ musical family history. Dad Charlie was a genuine jazz pioneer, accompanying Ornette Coleman on his first tentative steps into the free jazz hinterland. This is something that perhaps informs the more experimental spaces on this record. That Charlie eventually came back to his mountain country roots is also referenced by ‘Family Songbook’s’ opener. This is another uniquely fashioned version of the venerable old standard ‘Wayfaring Stranger’, a song he covered in his later career.
Indeed Charlie’s mountain country roots can be glimpsed in photographs of the three-year-old “yodelling cowboy” Charlie and the Haden family band that were part of a stash of recently uncovered family treasures. Also part of the haul were four unrecorded songs written in the depression era by family band leader, regional radio star and friend of The Carter Family, Carl Haden; the triplet’s grandfather (still with us?). These songs form the heartbeat of this record and were the initial spur for the sisters to record again.
This storied country heritage has been instrumental in creating the networks and connections that feed into this record. Their ‘non-country’ credentials are equally, perhaps even more, impressive. Between them they have performed, written or recorded with a marvellously eclectic bunch of indie/rock/punk and experimental artists, among them Foo Fighters, Todd Rundgren, Decembrists, Jimmy Eat World, Green Day, Sun O))), Mike Watt, Beck and Weezer….. phew. These assemblies, carefully nurtured over the years, are vital to the sound of the Family Songbook record, shaping the musical underpinnings for the sisters’ voices. The authenticity of these voices is where we began and they are clearly the focal point of the record, delivering the songs in keening three-part harmonies, making them sound like overlooked transmissions from an ancient weird America (thanks Mr Marcus).
The issue here is that whilst the voices are effortlessly pure and occasionally vibrant, with a timeless quality that is coloured with a kind of noughties indie-pop allure, they can also feel ever so slightly lifeless. They lack the grit necessary to create the beautiful pearl that this record could be. Leaving the listener impressed but emotionally unengaged. The musical accompaniment to the sisters’ harmonising is provided by fifteen plus crack players from their extended network including Bill Frissell, Greg Liesz, Don Was, Larry Taylor and Joachim Cooder.
In total there are five different guitarists appearing across the twelve tracks and this has already led to the record being dubbed one of the year’s great guitar records in some quarters. Whilst there is some lovely understated guitar playing, majoring in mood and atmosphere not pyrotechnics this seems something of an overstatement. The playing and production are teeming with little touches and details that seem placed to excite, inspire or even amuse the listener; the woodblock percussion here, the Spanish style guitar there, a wash of shimmering pedal steel and even some ‘Lynchian’ pump organ wheezing away in the background. The overall effect though might still be summed up as bare and otherworldly, it feels both low key and edgy. Something like the more outré moments of Tom Waits’ wild years if he’d crafted them in the nicely decorated home office rather than the shed at the bottom of his overgrown paddock.
The song choice also brings together the sisters’ family history and their more recent career experiences. As well as the newly discovered quartet of Grandpa Carl songs we get versions of ageless standards ‘Wildwood Flower’ and the aforementioned ‘Wayfarin Stranger’, folk gospel hymn ‘I’ll Fly Away’ and an acapella run through ‘Pretty Baby’ (AKA ‘Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby’) both these retooled from the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. In addition there is a cover of brother Josh’s ‘Every time I Try’ (from his mutable indie band Spain) and perhaps destined to accrue the most movement on social media is a pretty cool cover of Kanye Wests’ ‘Say You Will’ which carries on the Lynchian theme, sounding as it does like it was arranged for Isabella Rossellini to sing in the Blue Velvet nightclub.
There is then lots to admire, discuss and tweet about on this record, just not that much to love. It’s a pretty decent record, just not the great one that it already seems destined to be christened elsewhere.