Album Review: House and Land – Across the Field

It’s always this way for me, with music like this. Everything about it evokes the country; but not the country seen from far away of slow rolling slopes, soft meadows, trees whose green is bright and joyful seen from above and outside. Not this country. This is the country up close. The grass is stone-ridden underfoot; the meadows are pockmarked with gorse; under the trees the green is dark and silent; there’s a faint smell of blood and rot on the air; crows are prowling the ground; and even when you find the small knot of houses you won’t be safe.

The sparse combination of voices and instruments is the landscape as music. The pickings of the clawhammer banjo are briars snagging on your clothes as you walk, rocks poking through your thin-soled feet, thorns scratching your face and hands. The voices are the calls of birds on the wing, unseen in the branches above, the promises of handsome boys and men, beautifully delivered hiding menace and murder, love blown away in seconds by a breeze. The electric guitar is the keen and whistle of winter storms, the shriek of violent acts suddenly erupting in the distance, the threat of footsteps approaching from the shadows.

North Carolinian duo Sally Anne Morgan and Sarah Louise open with ‘Two Sisters’: complex interplay of banjo and guitar and the tale of mortally jealous kin, precisely but disconcertingly harmonising to plainly deliver the stark brutality of murder and corpse-robbing. “Carolina Lady’ is stripped of its lyrics describing a contest to win a woman’s love; as an instrumental it reverberates with anger, throbs with menace, and its quiet pauses are melancholy, nervous moments.

Throughout, House and Land flip things around, change the gender of protagonists and provide a feminist twist on these traditional ballads, a welcome and overdue reworking of the genre. And perhaps on ‘Rainbow ‘mid life’s willows’, where they make delicate magic on 12-string guitar, and underbowed fiddle, there’s a queering of folk tradition as well, as these two women sing sadly of their belle (“she’s the only one i love”), kept from them, chained and bound, guarded by father and brothers: “Before you enter that locked room, in your life’s blood you’ll wallow.”

When you put this on, turn out the lights, leave the curtains undrawn, open a window so that the scent of plants at night, and the evening cool, can seep in, look out of the windows into the gloaming, and let this music land on you, unsettle you.

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