Meg Bair, Helena Espvall and Sharron Kraus - "Barbry Ellen" (Leaves From Off the Tree)
In a recent interview with the journal Assembly, Matthew Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces made the pithy, if not wholly original assertion that “music is more interesting when you’re playing it than when you’re listening to it . . . The most rudimentary musical activity is worth more to general musical culture than everyone having a million amazing recordings on their iPhone.”
Meg Baird, Sharron Kraus, and Helena Espvall’s musicianship could hardly be described as “rudimentary”: Baird and Espvall play with Espers, as well as in several solo and collaborative projects, and Kraus has distinguished herself as a singer-songwriter. But their collaboration Leaves From Off the Tree, first issued on vinyl by Bo’ Weavil in 2006 and reissued on CD earlier this year, makes a case in point for Friedberger.
There’s nothing new here in content, form, or concept. Baird, Kraus, and Espvall taught each other a set of well-worn British and Appalachian songs while hanging out and drinking in their homes in Philadelphia and recorded the fruit of their labors live, in one afternoon. They execute these songs impeccably. Espvall’s cello modernizes the record, alternately playing psych-raga-like drones and more elaborate low lines that mimic what a fiddle might be playing on a more traditional recording. Their three high-lonesome voices emphasize the heartbreak of “Barbry Ellen,” which they sing a capella; other highlights include a slow, beautiful rendition of Robert Burns’ “Now Westlin’ Winds” and the undeniably creepy murder ballad “Bruton Town.”
In true folk-nerd tradition, they explain where they found each song and why they chose it in the album’s liner notes — some from records, some through friends, some from the Internet. “Thanks to all the singers who’ve given us these songs,” they conclude. Though some of their choices are fairly obscure, others — “Willie of Winsbury,” performed by numerous ’60s British-folk-rock luminaries, “John Hardy,” made kind-of-famous by the Carter Family and, subsequently, the Gun Club — are familiar. Leaves From Off the Tree thus becomes a quiet reminder of the continued, if somewhat buried existence of the “folk tradition,” that it’s as proximate as a favorite record or Google query. If Baird, Kraus and Espvall can find a 450-year-old song online and practice it and revitalize it, why can’t you or I?