The New Appalachians From the Mountaintop
hen I got the press package for From the Mountaintop by The New Appalachians, I was more than a bit interested. The cover photograph of a lush Appalachian mountain range brought back vivid memories of the years I spent in West Virginia, where I courted and then married the love of my life. Mountain music was the soundtrack to that period, and I'm drawn to anything that takes me back. Because I was also working as a public-radio reporter at the time, I was lucky enough to hear live performances of giants like Hazel Dickens and Ralph Stanley as well as a host of other unknown musicians whose ancestors were the actual sources of this folk music. I like to think that I know a bit about what real mountain music sounds like, so I was a bit put off when I read the text used to promote this new high-resolution recording: "The most pristine recording of folk music you've ever heard." Puffery like that tends to get my reviewer's panties in a serious bunch.
The first cut, "Susanna Gal," was not a good beginning. It fit right in with the type of audiophile recordings I am not drawn to, with particular emphasis on capturing the space in which the performance was recorded at the expense of realistic intimacy. The emphasis on venue was further heightened by Chesky's decision to use a binaural microphone for the sessions, which took place in an empty church sanctuary. While the intent was to put a headphone listener among the performers, the effect when the recording is played back on a stereo system is quite different -- as though you are listening to the performers from a distance. Throughout the recording, various vocals and instruments are either slightly buried or a bit overemphasized, depending upon where the performers might have been standing. I would have preferred hearing each performer mic'd separately and then mixed in post-production for maximum impact. I'll concede that listening to the recording on headphones is more engaging, but the approach is still a bit restrained for my tastes.
But here's the thing: in spite of all my audiophile nitpicking, much of the music on this recording gets under my skin. Vocalist and fiddler Noah Wall's rendition of "Wayfaring Stranger" is natural, unadorned and bittersweet, and when when Jacob Baine belts out the classic gospel number "Angel Band," it raises the hair on the back of my neck. I might even get a lump in my throat.
This leads me, finally, to Chesky's "most pristine recording of folk music" claim. As vocalist Noah Wall and cellist/producer Dave Eggars anchored a performance of "The Blackest Crow," my West Virginia sweetheart commented that the music was "pure." Maybe the critic doesn't know best. There's no denying that From the Mountaintop is real folk music: imperfect, heartfelt and beautiful.
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