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Frank Fairfield - Out on the Open West

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Artist: Frank Fairfield

Album: Out on the Open West

Label: Tompkins Square

Review date: Jun. 7, 2011

About a year ago I read an interview with Alasdair Roberts where he wondered what he was doing making music steeped in Scottish folk tradition; shouldn’t a man of his age and time be making techno records? I doubt that Frank Fairfield, who is a few years younger, asks himself such a question. Although he, like Roberts, performs music based in a folk tradition that spans generations, it seems to speak to the present in a different way.

Roberts conjures with the stuff of myth and memory, but you don’t get the feeling that he has a beef with the present — he’s just interested in accessing materials from a broader timeline. Fairfield, on the other hand, takes the present to task. If you put him on the spot about why he plays American folk music that sounds like it was cut to wax in the heyday of the 78 rpm record, he’d likely say that it’s just better that way. The tunes he recorded for his self-titled solo debut originally came out that way; I suppose that at some point all of them passed through Harry Smith’s record collection.

The songs on Out on the Open West, Fairfield’s second record, are more modern in one respect; Fairfield wrote them. Still, he’s made a record that sounds like it comes from another time. There’s no crackle of needle against shellac, but neither is there the compression and isolation of modern recording. His accompanists — three guitarists who play one song apiece, and a fiddle trio on one more — all sound like they sang and played at the same time as Fairfield, in the same room, and the music reverberates with a natural echo, as though it bounced off a wall before it was drawn into the microphone. And Fairfield sings in a vernacular that sounded old-fashioned before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. On “Frazier Blues,” he talks about his true love and his wagon that done broke down. No one talks that way these days unless they’re reading from an old script. The way he plays his guitar throughout the song betrays an antique sense of time. Rather than simply strum it, he fingerpicks an endlessly varying accompaniment that is at once restless and unhurried; he may not want to play the same thing twice, but he’s happy to explore each melodic variant. He plays like a guy looking for forgotten treasure in an old tool drawer. When he picks up the pace, his signifying reference — the click clack of a steam-powered locomotive — is simultaneously anachronistic and universal. If he’s bringing back the past, it’s not an obscure one.

More than one commentator has claimed that Fairfield’s old-fashioned sound and appearance (I challenge you to find a picture of him with his top button unbuttoned or his shirt tails pulled out of his high-waisted pants) are authentic, as though oldness by itself confers authenticity. In fact, it takes a lot of subterfuge to pull this act off, but there’s nothing wrong with that. A show is no less moving because it is a show, and Fairfield’s damned good at putting his show on. His vintage sonorities are rich and compelling, and his backward-looking songs fulfill the prime directive of pop across the decades; you won’t forget ‘em. With its cantering banjo picking and quavering vocal, “Someday You’ll Be Free” sticks in your ear. And even if you don’t believe that getting saved will sooth your soul, you’re likely to relate to the longing for deliverance from misery that suffuses the song. Frank Fairfield may be putting on an act, but the feelings that act stirs are real.

By Bill Meyer

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