If there wasn’t so much earth in this record, so much grit, loam and mulch, you could be forgiven for thinking it was conceived in a room of bare white walls and no furniture, so minimalist is its approach. You can almost smell the mud-on-boots authenticity; these are songs that have been worked like the land. This Alaskan songwriter’s premise is of a storyteller toughened and shaped by his environment; many environments, in fact, including the American south, the Ukraine and Poland where he currently lives – it would appear that James Haddock Jr has a dose of wanderlust. Looking like Bon Iver’s younger sibling (there’s a lot of beards around at the moment – what you do if you like roots music and suffer from pogonophobia is anyone’s guess), Haddock has selected a similarly isolated starting point for Fieldnotes as For Emma. The album title, artwork and song titles emphasise the sense of space and solitude before you’ve pressed play, though there are plenty of collaborators here, including Paul Brainard of Richmond Fontaine and Nathan Anderson of The Dandy Warhols.
What unfolds is a largely gentle musical affair. Hushed, sometimes barely conscious singing in fractured tones is accompanied by pump organ, pedal steel and piano in short vignettes about meeting, separating and travelling. For the majority of the album nothing is risked or rushed, the simple melodies a vehicle for often blunt, sometimes humorous lyrics. Road trips feature heavily, cocaine and guns, loneliness for breakfast and cigarettes for desert. All human life is here, but quietly.
Opener Days Before is a standard folk song more akin to the new breed of Americana artist like Nathaniel Rateliff, himself no stranger to going walkabout in search for inspiration. The stories have a blurred, hypnotic edge-of-sleep feel that’s only interrupted twice, once for Casey, a mid-tempo psych out to a chick-a-boom rhythm, and once for The Most. These are rare occasions where the music matches the attitude.
Elsewhere, delicate melodies balance precariously atop organ drones, the creak of a rocking chair or ambient noise filling out the sound. Alaska’s sweet melody and tale of family upheaval acts as a fulcrum from which the overall sense of dislocation ripples out across the album. Mesa, I Go To Work and Door are increasingly minimal in delivery, the latter including an overlay of hiss for the first minute that’s as loud if not louder than the picked guitar notes and whispered vocal – it’s like listening to a dusty 78 in the backroom of an Alabama bar.
The aforementioned Richmond Fontaine is as good a yardstick as any, though the meticulously planned simplicity of Syd Matters also springs to mind. Fieldnotes isn’t a record for a busy evening. It requires, and rewards, concentration and patience. I’d like to see it performed live, if only to see how the tumbleweed atmosphere is re-created.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
Out Now via Resonating Wood Recordings
Order via Bandcamp