Hillfolk Noir – Junkerpunch
Independent – 5 May 2017 (UK Date)
The album title of Hillfolk Noir‘s latest album ‘Junkerpunch‘ stems from singer Travis Ward sustaining a broken hand while playing basketball, but it somehow sums up the sound this Idaho trio make, a ramshackle rural clatter that is given life by guitar, double bass, banjo and washboard, here occasionally augmented by jaw harp and musical saw.
In terms of material, it’s a mix of new numbers from Ward and a collection of traditional tunes that have been live favourites, though, without the credits you’d be hard pressed to tell which are which. Take the banjo, bowed saw and washboard opening mountain music stomp Dead Maud, a Ward original but sounding as though it might have been sung around a hooch still a century back. The same holds true for the next four too, Northbound #2 a lazy jug band feel, Alone Sitting On A Bench another saw and washboard blues, Pay Day’s 85-second good time medicine show styled leg-slapper and the skeletal rockabilly banjo-led Billy Got Popped which may or may not be a noir mountain music murder tale.
A tricky faltering fingerpicking intro heralds the first of the traditional tunes positioned in the middle section of the album with Crow Jane, a blues number learned from Skip James. Another blues veteran, Tampa Red, is the source for the contrite slow blues Forgive Me Please, while, with Ward playing dobro, Texas blues guitar legend Henry Thomas is the well from which they draw the fugitive on the run themed Shanty Blues.
Mining a different roots genre, the frisky banjo and washboard Appalachian instrumental Brushy Fork of John’s Creek from old-time Kentucky fiddler Hiram Stamper (there’s a video of him playing it on YouTube) who himself learned it from a Civil War veteran, while another fiddler, Joseph Emmett Mainer, this time from North Carolina, is the source for the rockabilly washboard arrangement of his 1949 recording Run Mountain.
Delivered in highly relaxed style, complete with a laugh from washboard player Alison Ward at the start, the last of the heritage tunes and probably the best known comes from the Lomax and Lomax collection of Americana folk songs with Hallelujah, I’m A Bum, a number dating back to around 1897 and probably best known via recordings by Al Jolson and Fats Waller.
The remaining six songs on this generous 17-track collection, one of which, 16th of January, is a banjo-driven bluegrass instrumental, are all from Ward, the strident shanty Johnny’s Last Run one of only two tracks that break the three-minute mark. Pirate Song features some eerie bowed saw to complement the lyric and Might As Well Live Like A Hobo (which sound like something Dylan might have written back in his Maggie’s Farm days) pretty much sums up the band’s musical ethos.
After its predominantly musically upbeat mood, it ends on a quiet reflective ballad; mournful bowed saw behind the sparse guitar as Travis and Alison harmonise on the weary and exhausted Leave A Light On, a dying fall to yet another find addition to their repertoire.