Friday, Aug. 31, 2012

Another Round of Haunted Spirituals From Old Earth

Songs from the basement of a treasured place

By Evan Rytlewski
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Field Report's self-titled debut is this week's big local release—and judging by the interest the record has already received from seemingly every major music publication, it's looking like it could prove to be the biggest local release in quite some time—but it's not the only breathtaking new Milwaukee album out this weekend. Old Earth, the otherworldly folk project from Oak Creek songwriter Todd Umhoefer, posted its latest and most spellbinding album yet to Bandcamp today, in advance of an opening spot at Field Report's album release show Saturday night at Linneman's Riverwest Inn.

The shared bill holds symbolic importance for Field Report songwriter Chris Porterfield. “Linneman's is the place where I grew my legs as a writer,” Porterfield explains, and one of the first musicians he met playing open mics there was Umhoefer. The two have been off-and-on collaborators ever since. “As an artist, Todd has challenged me more than anybody I've ever known,” Porterfield says.

For all their shared history, there's no mistaking the two artists' songwriting, which have evolved in divergent directions over the years. While Porterfield has refined a particularly pure form of folk, Umhoefer has wandered a more elliptical path. The typical Old Earth song is a puzzle with crucial pieces removed, or depending on the treatment, a film with missing frames—a vivid but incomplete picture. Umhoefer's string-and-bone prose seems to exist on an entirely separate plane from Porterfield's full narratives, yet the two musicians continue to complement each other. Written and recorded in the basement of Umhoefer's grandparent's creaky house, a generations-old family property that now sits unoccupied, Old Earth's new a low place at The Old Place is Umhoefer's prettiest and most direct work yet, no doubt in part because of assists from Porterfield and his Field Report bandmates Nick Berg and Travis Whitty, who lent their voices, instruments and production whims to the recording.

The Field Report team lightly brightens Umhoefer's songs without tempering their deep chill. As on past Old Earth releases, The Old Place's songs are haunted by ghosts, not just of loved ones, but of relationships, mind states, and possessions that no longer hold any value. For as autobiographical as they clearly are, each of these songs feels like a spiritual that has somehow existed for ages before he wrote them. At just over 18-minutes long, the record is as lean and economical as Umhoefer's bare lyrics, but even so, this is an uncommonly rich work—a parade of goosebumps that reads like poetry but plays like a seance. 

You can sample the achy "less words" below. The whole album is streaming at Bandcamp as one continuous track.






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