Emily Pinkerton, Patrick Burke, and NOW Ensemble: Rounder Songs
New Amsterdam Records

Rounder Songs is an inspired collaboration between the wonderful NOW Ensemble (flutist Alex Sopp, clarinetist Alicia Lee, electric guitarist Mark Dancigers, double bassist Logan Coale, and pianist Michael Mizrahi) and singer-and-banjo player Emily Pinkerton and contemporary classical composer Patrick Burke. Composed by the married couple, the five-song, twenty-eight-minute mini-album isn't perhaps what one might expect from such a gathering: a song cycle for voice, banjo, and chamber ensemble that's rooted in old-time American folk music yet dressed in semi-contemporary garb thanks to NOW Ensemble's involvement.

The project began when Pinkerton and Burke decided to ‘re-compose' traditional songs and lyrics from Appalachia, to in essence update public domain material from Kentucky and West Virginia about so-called rounders (viz. rural drifters, gamblers, con artists, and murderers), with the express intent of having Pinkerton sing and play banjo against a vibrant backdrop of pulsing rhythms and chamber colour. There are earworms aplenty in these pieces, from the “Who'll rock the cradle when I'm gone” chorus in “Red Rocking Chair” to the haunting “Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly come go along with me” refrain that arrives two songs later.

The opening song illustrates how effectively the collaborators' contrasting sides come together. Flute, clarinet, electric guitar, and piano imbue “Red Rocking Chair” with a contemporary resonance, while Pinkerton's singing and banjo picking infuse it with an old-time folk feel. As the song advances and the vocal recedes, the ensemble's instrumental textures move to the fore, effectively turning the song into a modern-day riff on Reich-styled minimalism.

Pinkerton's voice introduces the eerie folk-drone “Marcum and the Yankee” sans accompaniment until individual instruments enter quietly to flesh out the unsettling terrain; lyrically, it's arguably the most arresting of the four vocal pieces, its violent narrative centering on a mill worker who strikes a deal with the devil and trades his soul for a gun. Speaking of violence, the murder ballad “Pretty Polly” has got more than its share, given the inclusion of lines such as “I stabbed her in the heart, her lifeblood did flow / And in to the grave Pretty Polly did go.”

Not to take anything away from Pinkerton's singing, but the recording's most memorable setting is its sole instrumental, “Three Forks of Hell.” A stately rendering of a Civil War-era tune, the dream-like reverie mesmerizes in the way banjo picking blends with a rich and ever-coursing swirl of woodwinds and piano. Its six minutes are so captivating, in fact, one can't help but wonder how compelling a wholly instrumental full-length featuring the same personnel would be.

December 2017