Well, the world changed on November 8 when a New York City billionaire, running on a platform of racial hate and bigotry, narrowly received enough electoral college votes to be the next POTUS, in spite of losing the popular vote by 2 million votes. And the hand wringing and hair pulling begins, wondering who voted for this guy and why.
Economic despair might be a start, but fingers will point quickly at “the old South”, the part of the US that seceded from the Union in 1860 in defence of slavery, sparking the Civil War. “The old South” has been a flashpoint in US politics ever since, to the point that famed activist Noam Chomsky claims ‘the Civil War never really ended”.
It’s a fairly complex and often misunderstood area that has come to represent backwardness, racism and staunch conservatism, rightly so, but only to an extent. Texas, the archetypal Redneck State, also happens to be more than 50% Hispanic, and places like Austin and New Orleans are bastions of liberalism in a sea of conservatism.
Old Fire is the pet project of indie musician and programmer, John Mark Lapham. Lapham happens to be a native of Abilene, Texas and Songs from the Haunted South may be seen as an ode to the land of his birth.
Ten years in the making, Songs from the Haunted South survived the breakup of Lapham’s band and various other setbacks to finally see the light of day. The project features different vocalists covering songs ranging from ambient artists such as Brian Eno and Stars of the Lid to Psychedelic Rock, Traditional Country and early 4AD. Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline are mentioned as influences, and the resulting sound, blending acoustic instruments with honky tonk staples like pedal steel and ambient electronica, can indeed be called ‘ambient country’ as the website claims.
The American South has always been a mythical place in the minds of non-southerners, full of ghosts, superstition, legends and anachronistic customs, and this album has a powerful, appropriately spooky vibe, that could send chills down anyone’s spine.
The slowly unfolding Helix is a majestic piece of chamber pop with vocalist Christopher Barnes crooning over a cavernous piano, weeping pedal steel and various strange sounds.
It’s easier now and Shadows may be the most successful pieces, starting with Christopher Barnes singing in a broken voice over shimmering guitar before a full-blown country band from outer space kicks in, richly deserving of the ’ambient country’ moniker. I could imagine these songs as the soundtrack to a scene set in some deserted honky tonk in a David Lynch movie.
Another winner is Bloodchild. Sara Lowes delicately croons the heart breaking lyrics as the song wraps you into a strangely comforting blanket of aching sadness.
Faust is a psychedelic mini tour de force, with tribal drums, quivering guitars, tremolo feedback and grinding organ, like a modern day version of stoner rock. While Laser beam provides a gorgeous mini-symphony, haunting piano with wailing pedal steel and richly layered vocals ebbing and flowing eerily and breathlessly to a gentle fade out.
The Orchids is built on cascading chiming guitars with panned vocals, slowly disintegrating into a psychedelic jam reminiscent of Syd Barrett.
Closer Deadhouse Dream is a slowly evolving instrumental ambient piece, worthy of Brian Eno or Daniel Lanois, with sounds coming seemingly out of nowhere, building into a mini-cathedral of sound ending the record on the same otherworldly vibe that permeates this release.
No, Songs from the Haunted South will not help you understand Trump voters, but it is an engaging, visionary record that blends many different influences and styles into a compelling whole, a very personal ode to a strange and enchanting land that will forever continue to baffle and intrigue.
Out now via Kscope