As much and as long as I’ve been praising the accomplishments of New Mexico’s musical community, I am still sometimes caught off-guard by the quality of the work. Here are two releases that did just that. On The Mountain King, Scott and Johanna Hongell-Darsee carry songs that are centuries old, laden with the mythic and supernatural, into the modern world, while on All You Can’t Control, Kevin Herig writes brand-new songs that get between the lines of everyday life, love, and loss.
Scott and Johanna Hongell-Darsee, The Mountain King (indie)
On The Mountain King, nine ballads—one original instrumental, and eight songs pulled from traditional Finnish and United Kingdom sources reaching back to medieval times—recount the Scandinavian legend of the mountain king, who, as the liner notes tell it, “allures a certain young woman into his underworld, a story that parallels the Greek myth of Persephone.” What to praise first? Johanna’s lovely alto and her storytelling skill? Scott’s evocative guitars? Their arrangements that mold ancient melodies to modern ears? The performances have a stylized, almost ritual quality, as the Hongell-Darsees summon ancient characters from the depths of our collective unconscious and bid you take leave of the modern world and join your ancestors, huddled together in a hut around a fire as the storyteller makes the hair on your arms stand straight up. The songs, drawn from a live multimedia production, employ hypnotic repetition to charm you into a slightly different consciousness, and they are shot through with the silence of a world before automotive engines and electric lights and radios. Modern electric instruments and traditional acoustic instruments are well blended, straddling centuries, just as the songs do. Scott plays acoustic and electric guitars and bass and a Wiessenborn lap guitar. Johanna commands a battery of acoustic instruments: flute, slägflöjt (willow flute), månmarkspipa (wooden flute), jouhikko (three-stringed lyre), and salangai (small brass bells). They are helped out on a couple of tracks by Christopher A. Carlson (violin and octave violin), Larry Otis (bass), and John Wall (vocals). The album is beautifully produced by the Hongell-Darsees and Wall.
Kevin Herig, All You Can’t Control (indie)
Now that singer/songwriter/guitarist Kevin Herig’s good friend (and backing vocalist on this album) Meredith Wilder has headed north to Colorado, Herig can quite reasonably lay claim to the mantle of the area’s sweetest voice—warm, intimate, and soothing—reminiscent of early Paul Simon. That’s not the only influence you’ll hear on All You Can’t Control. There are echoes of CSN, ’50s Memphis, and the Beatles, too—but it’s all Herig. The six original songs are so well and tightly crafted, with such fine details so perfectly placed—a bell here, a brief harmony there, a slide up the guitar’s neck to carry you to the next verse—that you might want to take them in your hands and turn them over and over for the sheer tactile pleasure of it. The music is never hurried, and the musicians—Wilder, Kyle Ruggles (bass), Jeff Bell (drums), Brendan Brejcha (piano and organ), Chris Tenerowicz (slide)—play with a restrained laconic fervor that deepens the emotional content. Herig explores relationships—good ones, bad ones, equivocal ones, impossible ones—and memory through the lens of singular details. In “Honey Jar,” he grapples with uncertainty: “These lines we hook and throw, I follow through the air, into the water/But from there, I do not see where they will go.” In “Contrails,” he can’t escape what he cannot have: “It shows on my face like a breath in cold air./I fall through the fog, and I’ll stay suspended there./I brood in the truth,/I can never have you./How long must you hold on to me?” In “Aptos,” then and now simultaneously inhabit a special place: “I go and stand there all the time,/my toes up to the edge, my hands clenched to a rusty fence./I look down from the cliff and see some kids are playing with/A baseball bat washed in with old debris./One of those kids was me.” The crisp production, shared between Herig and Tenerowicz, finds an airy spaciousness that allows the material to breathe and invites the listener in.
© 2016 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.