Album review: Devin Hoff – ‘Voices From The Empty Moor (Songs of Anne Briggs)’: the canon of the Notts folk free spirit judiciously reinvented


The Breakdown

It's an interesting project from a supremely interesting musician, whose respect and appreciation of Anne Briggs is served so very well . He hits the balance deftly between retreadings and progressive reinventions; the tracks chosen array along the spectrum from one to the other, while never losing sight of the oeuvre. As the nights draw in, this might be a record for a couple of nearest and dearest, a single malt and an ashtray, Devin has breathed a subtly altered life into these songs for new ears. Which is as the folk song should be.
KILL ROCK STARS 8.0

BASSIST Devin Hoff may well be one of those names little known to you, but whose invaluable contributions to a record you’ve likely loved; as a four-string sharpshooter of absolute repute he’s contributed to not far shy of a hundred releases by the likes of Julia Holter, Nels Cline, Xiu Xiu, Cibo Matto, Sharon Van Etten, Tara Jane O’Neil and others.

Which isn’t of course to retract from the fact that Devin has his name in lights, too, moving in more abstruse, experimental and classical circles with deep explorations of timbre such as his “Triple Goddess Suite For Solo Double Bass” and three entirely solo albums to his name: Solo Bass (2009), Baile as Baile (2019), and Sigils (2018), the first of which Laurie Anderson named in her top five favourite albums of all time.

But the latest album is in the folk sphere, and is entirely a platonic, musical love letter to the short catalogue of Nottingham-born English folk singer Anne Briggs, a contemporary of Bridget St John, Nick Drake, Bert Jansch and Pentangle, et al; but who, as a singer, had really very little interest in the trappings of success and who walked away from the music business almost as soon as she arrived.

Before proceeding then, we should look at Anne and her work. Brought up by her aunt and uncle in Nottingham, she began attending local folk clubs in the early Sixties – and her vocal power was such that, before her eighteenth birthday, she was moving in Ewan MacColl’s circle and very soon sharing a flat with Bert Jansch. It would be Anne who taught him “Black Waterside”, that song regarded as a Jansch classic (which also features herein).

And that was one of Anne’s abiding passions: she was a self-taught musicologist who explored and breathed new life into songs from the English, Scottish and Irish traveller cultures – songs which were still to be heard unadulterated in the hidden corners of life, passed down orally and clinging on. While absolutely respectful and fascinated, she was also bold in her approach and took the songs on her own terms. A first, self-titled album, almost entirely a cappella, brave and true to Anne’s unadorned vision, emerged; a second, The Time Has Come, on which she was joined by Lal Waterson, sold poorly. A third was recorded in 1973 and gathered dust until the mid-Nineties. And thus ended, to all intents and purposes, Anne’s musical career.

Beguiled, enraptured, Devin has been studying the music of Anne Briggs for more than a decade: transcribing, practicing, arranging and performing songs from that slight, but deep, catalogue. And the time has now come where he feels he can step forward and offer these songs on again, passing the torch for current and future generations. And in doing so he’s called on a wealth of talent from his own life in music in order to best realise the record. Nine tracks are bookended by Devin performing solo, but in between – and let’s play this out movie industry style, in order of appearance: Sharon van Etten, Julia Holter, Howard Wiley Shannon Lay, Alejandro Farha, Emmett Kelly and Jim White appear. Some line-up, eh?

The album, Voices From the Empty Moor, seeks to honour the mystery and beauty of Anne Briggs’ music while also bringing a different aesthetic, stemming from Devin’s own mastery of an instrument; surely an approach Anne would approve of.

Does it work, though? Does it play out both respectfully and in bringing new life and perspective? Oh goodness yes, it really does.

It opens in a solo bass reading of the traditional “She Moved Through the Fair” (much of Anne’s recorded catalogue is from the sphere of trad arr, with seven of the nine tracks featured here of that genealogy; but such was, and still is, the coinage of the folk form, the tales as handed down, their capturing of the human condition paradigmatic). This ethereal tune, recorded by so many is rendered for basses in conversation; the lead melody with feeling, bowed, a contrabass adding a thundery presaging underneath. It’s both pretty and ominous. It’s very good.

Sharon van Etten joins for the Anne original “Go Your Way”, a song which first emerged as the opener on Bert Jansch’s 1967 album, Nicola, before inclusion on that self-titled debut; Sharon brings a free, bell-clear reading to complement the gorgeous woodiness of Devin’s bass (oh, and I’m so here for the current trend towards the dendrological timbre of the double bass, as exemplified elsewhere by Claude Cooper). It’s a relatively straight reading in some senses, but then: why over-gild the lily? It has a stillness and a gentleness – and that lyric, “You go your way, my love” is so indicative of the free-spirited Anne.

No, for a darker, mossier and more mysterious reading, look to “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme”; Julia Holter is aboard here and it’s rich, baroque, off-kilter; has the beauty of shafts of sunlight in an oak wood in which you inadvertently realise you’ve drawn blood in the thicket. Devin’s bass saws in a contemporary classical essay, all snarl and flourish; Julia is detached, distanced, with that dispassionate eerie quality of folk horror. And it just gets deeper, slides into spectral textures and Wicker Man-like, paced clapping. You can hear lost souls herein. Anyway, here it is: take a listen. The accompanying visuals are perfect.

Fellow Xiu Xiu-collaborating saxophonist Howard Wiley takes the vocal melody line on the Hibernian traditional “Maa Bonny Lad”, allowing Devin full, sweet time to skirl that sadly pretty melody out with bowed bass and drone counterpoint, string harmonics of an almost saw-like quality; when Howard makes his entrance, he absolutely skies the song as spiritual tone poem à la Pharoah Sanders, interpretative, grainy, circular, free. And you weren’t expecting that.

The other Briggs original herein, “Living By The Water” bestows the album its title and is gets an appreciative and strong reading from folk-punk singer Shannon Lay. Another wholly instrumental reading comes in the medley “The Snow It Melts the Soonest/My Bonny Boy”, another from that mostly unadorned debut; in which Alejandro Farha takes the song into Africana with judicious skills on the oud, the Arabic lute that you may be more familiar with on the Impulse! albums of Alice Coltrane. It has a taut, arid warmth, and skitters through the bowing and rumbling of the bass in the business of taking the song into more meditative, looser territory, with aplomb.

Given how deeply “Black Waterside” is entwined with the voice of Bert Jansch, perhaps it’s only right that the lead here be male; and that cachet falls to Cairo Gang vocalist and seemingly unstoppable Drag City stable collaborator Emmett Kelly. He takes the song with an understated vocal intimacy that’s faithful and perfectly befitting (has anyone really bellowed out “Black Waterside”, ever?).

Dirty Three and Xylouris White drummer Jim White brings his nuanced rhythmic chops along for “Willie O’ Winsbury”, on which Devin also augments to six strings; simply thumbed chords to flesh out the plaintive bass. To part-paraphrase Nick Cave: with feeling. It moves from an autumnally indie feel to a more Gaelic reading as it swells and builds and oww, was that my heart? Indeed it was. And it remains only for the briefest shard of an instrumental reading of “The Lowlands”, a closing overture grainy and charged with emotion, to deposit you at the far lakeside.

It’s an interesting project from a supremely interesting musician, whose respect and appreciation of Anne Briggs is served so very well by this record. He hits the balance deftly, I think, between retreadings and progressive reinventions; the tracks chosen array along the spectrum from one to the other, while never losing sight of the canon.

As the nights draw in, this might be a record for a couple of nearest and dearest, old acquaintance unforgot; maybe a single malt and an ashtray, as is your preference. Devin hasn’t caged the essence of Anne; but then like transatlantic fellow minor genius Karen Dalton, that’s nigh impossible. She refused absolutely point-blank to be caught by the music industry. I mean, how do you bottle lightning? A legendary free spirit who went her way in 1973 and rarely seen in the musical sphere since, Devin has breathed a subtly altered life into these songs for new ears. Which is as folk song should be.

Devin Hoff’s Voices From The Empty Moor (Songs of Anne Briggs) will be released by Kill Rock Stars on November 12th, digitally, on CD and on vinyl, with initial pressings on blue/green ‘sea foam’ wax; you can order your copy from the label direct or get yourself over to Bandcamp.

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