Review Summary: A revisitation, a deconstruction, a rough beast reborn
There is a kind of inherent mysticism in most true folk music, a sense of presence beyond the physical reality of the music that can be found in the folk songs of almost any culture, from Appalachia to Ghana to Tibet. It’s perhaps for this reason that David Eugene Edwards chooses to make folk his medium of choice, the root from which his creative expression springs. The embrace of the spiritual, and an almost fanatic concern with matters of the soul have been Edwards’ muse since the genesis of his creative output. This infatuation with the ethereal in general and the figure of Jesus Christ in particular, expressed through a kind of hypnotic ecstasy of sound, is the basic premise of Wovenhand as a group, its somber Alternative-Folk stylings an organic extension of Edwards beliefs. So it is with Blush Music, the follow-up to Wovenhand’s self-titled debut, an album that both revisits past experience and expands outward from it, into realms at once intimately familiar and malevolently alien.
Creatively, Wovenhand took a substantial step away from their debut with Blush Music, while still remaining true to their formative sound. The manner they chose to do so however, was unusual both in concept and execution. Intended to accompany a modern dance performance, much of the album takes the tightly knit arrangements of Wovenhand’s debut and unravels them, introducing new threads, new patterns, stretching and reshaping the pieces into alien, ghostly permutations of their former selves. It’s a formula that was clearly intended to have a visual component; one can only imagine what impact the music might have had in the context of the dance performance. Opener Cripplegate, out of all the songs on the album, seems to have the most innate sense of music made for dance, all rattling shakers and tapping hand drums, whirling under a pensive, galvanizing banjo part. As such, it also stands on its own as perhaps the strongest original song on the album, perhaps Wovenhand’s strongest opener to date. Other tracks also offer cues indicating their origins while acting as powerful musical statements in and of themselves, the driving White Bird is a prime example, as well as being another album highlight. But, to the album’s slight detriment, it seems that several of the tracks were perhaps meant to work more in conjunction with the visual aspect of the work, rather than to stand on their own independently.
This intention for the music to act as an accompaniment to another art form works both for and against Blush Music at times, as the pieces taken from the past album are given a new, epic sense of scope, as well as a hypnotic mysticism that beautifully complements Wovenhand’s natural sensibilities. On the other hand, through their reworking, the old songs sometimes losing the sense of purpose and economy that gave the originals much of their power. The “Ain’t No Sunshine” cover is a prime example of both the best and the worst tendencies of the new alterations. The Bill Withers classic, which I’ve described as “abyssal” in its previous incarnation, and which is here retitled Animalitos, has become an endlessly bleak, desolate stretch of droning gospel, taking the gloom of the original arrangement and stretching it into something even more haunting than before. But where in other passages of the album the effect is both mystical and hypnotic, on Animalitos the malevolent ambience tends to wear on occasion, with long sections of croaking birds and crackling flames taking up space just long enough to become monotonous. It’s hard to gauge what kind of effect these passages would have in the context of the dance performance, most probably the visual element would have complemented the extended ambient sections and added to their ominous power, but in the strict context of the album, they serve little purpose. It’s an issue that’s also seen on My Russia, another recomposed number that sounds as though it’s been expanded enough to allow it to complement the dancing, but without the tight progression of the original, the song in and of itself seems to meander.
Where the new formula works best (to perfection, even) is on the final two reworked pieces of the album, Your Russia (Without Hands) and Stories and Pictures. The Blush Music version of Your Russia is given exactly the amount of breathing space it needs, taking the epic aspirations of the original version and giving it the sense of scope a song of that caliber so richly deserves. As on their debut, Your Russia clearly stands out as the single most powerful moment on the album, and the clearest distillation of the band’s vision. Stories and Pictures, which, while pretty, verged on tedium in its last incarnation, has been thrown into an abandoned farmhouse and covered with a layer of dust, transformed into a weeping ghost of itself, the yearning culmination of Edwards’ vision and the performance as a whole.
While it’s necessary to consider Blush Music based on its musical merits alone, the context of its creation lends a richer understanding of the music itself. Perhaps it’s an album that would feel like more of a complete work when used in conjunction with the medium for which it was intended. Given the musical scope and ambition of Blush Music, it should come as little surprise that when it succeeds, it handily surpasses its predecessor. Conversely, when it stumbles, it falls harder as well. The end result of all this is an album that is at times the fullest realization of Wovenhand’s sound and at others is sparse to the point of vacancy. As such, it can’t quite make the claim that it’s the indisputable greatest album in Wovenhand’s long discography. But it’s certainly a strong contender.