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V/A - Wayfaring Strangers: Lonesome Heroes

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Artist: V/A

Album: Wayfaring Strangers: Lonesome Heroes

Label: The Numero Group

Review date: Aug. 25, 2009

The Numero Group’s latest installment of the Wayfaring Strangers series is dedicated to the loner. More specifically, a nomadic band of male folk singers from the years spanning 1970 through 1983, without ties to a scene or each other. Combining introspection, voice and acoustic guitar, they found commonality in an ability to draw power from solitude and uncertainty. Taken from albums with titles like The Wall I Built Myself and Mirror of My Madness, each selection is a lost victory. Less outsider folk, more underheard American troubadour, they took inspiration from forbearers like Charley Patton, Jackson C. Frank and Townes Van Zandt.

Staying mostly adrift of standard themes like politics and romance, the liner notes reinforce that this is not typical singer-songwriter fare. Almost entirely culled from privately-pressed releases, these rediscoveries were originally meant to be heard by a select, close few. Like more personal readings of the folk tradition, the intimate portraits invite a reinterpretation of our own past.

Directionless motives and transience drifts through the set. Whether looking over their shoulder, in the reflection of a train window or from a hill, some of these writers aspired to have no aspirations. Others embraced confusion. All them knew the questions were more important than the answers. They were observers documenting their thoughts on paper and tape, always moving, if not necessarily forward. They checked off states after venturing through, writing songs about admitted wrongs, unwinnable wars and decisions not made.

On almost every track, sparse arrangements revolve around the loner’s voice. Tucker Zimmerman, who studied music theory under Goffredo Petrassi and ran in the same circles as Steve Winwood and Tony Visconti, exemplifies this sort of reclusive development. On "No Love Lost," he reaches out to a friend who has moved on: "It’s a shame that I’ll be nothing more / Than some character in your future tales / And just the same I wish that you were more / Than some lines in a song that I put up for sale." The song is one of the label’s more memorable excavations. The project’s youngest inclusion, Roger Lewis, performs one of its most enduring pieces, an elegy for irresolution titled “Autumn.”

This wouldn’t be a Numero release without its share of eccentricities. Idyllically-named Les Moore sings this: "See those who blow a big nose / See them foul up the air / While some in slums suffocate / With Kleenex everywhere" before expressing affection for Jesus’ sandals." “Deep Night” sounds like a Thomas Merton journal entry set to music, as Father Tony Trosley picks at a phasered 12-string. Bob Brown’s “Close of the Day” wouldn’t seem out of place on John Wesley Harding if you stripped Dylan of all lyrical disguise. George Cromarty, also featured on Guitar Soli, sounds like a male, American version of Sibylle Baier.

The stories behind these loners are as interesting as the music. Jim Schoenfeld was a defensemen for the Buffalo Sabers when he recorded the brooding, apocalyptic meditation “Before.” Jack Hardy was convicted of libel for a political cartoon defacing Richard Nixon. Lone U.K. representative Kieran White’s “Hummingbird” was intended as an instructional demo for another artist. Jay Bolotin, who clearly spent some time with Songs of Love and Hate, would go on to write for David Allan Coe.

A low point for David Kauffman is the high point of the compilation. On “Kiss Another Day Goodbye,” from Songs From Suicide Bridge, you can almost hear the crow’s feet form as he squints into the California morning. Like an anti-motivational speaker, Kauffman debates the value of such an existence: “I don’t know how much longer / I can live the way I live / And never die.”

One song does provide a brighter beat, hinting that being alone doesn’t always precipitate loneliness. Written atop Independence Path in Colorado, Jim Ransom’s "It’s So Profound" compares Ransom to a pine tree and predicts a fortunate break, before proclaiming: “It’s so profound / Not to make sound / For a long / Long time.” Now there’s a slogan the Numero Group and its collection of moldy masters can live by.

By Jake O'Connell

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