“Unheard Ofs and Forgotten Abouts”

by
  • Unheard Ofs & Forgotten Abouts” (Tompkins Square/Pawn CD)

    reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner (edited from http://pitchfork.com):

A mixtape of old tracks culled from Frank Fairfield’s personal record collection sounds like a proposition to be wary of, one that no doubt revels in the past simply because it is past. Unheard Ofs & Forgotten Abouts spans the globe, traipsing from Scotland to Nairobi to China to the Appalachian foothills. In fact, the compilation often sounds diverse for the sake of diversity– not to show off how wide his collection is, but to demonstrate the various strains of music around the globe.

The brightest spots may be the transitions, suggesting a careful sequencing that contrasts wildly diverse musical traditions. Fairfield creates the starkest contrast by setting the two a cappella religious tunes right at the end. “Atepa Yion”, a Byzantine liturgy featuring Chanter P. Manea’s dizzyingly low bass, is measured and restrained, which makes “By the Pool of Siloam” by Chicago’s Rev. Frank Cotton sound all the more exuberant and desperate.

At only 16 tracks, Unheard doesn’t attempt to be representative of any one particular style or location, but that doesn’t prevent Fairfield from trying to sum up the world.  His tendency to overreach, while incompatible with bustling modern-day venues, actually proves noble on Unheard Ofs. Even though some of these songs are nearly a century old, they still sound immediate and lively.

The best songs here suggest the musicians are barely maintaining control of the rambunctious music. “Hundred Pipers-Miss Drummond of Perth-Sleepy Maggie”, a medley by Pipe-Major Forsyth and Drums, ends right at the moment when the repeating reel becomes too fast and too intense to keep up with. The increasing tempo gives it a hypnotic, almost abstracted sound, as if the musicians are trying to break the confines of the song and break through your speaker. Similarly, a version of “La Bamba” by the once popular Veracruzian act Hermanos Huesca, nearly trips over its own feet in its excitement; that it stays upright is both a miracle and a testament to the prowess of its players.

More interesting than the music, perhaps, is its presentation. These songs are deeply embedded in the familiar hiss and crackle of aged shellac and vinyl, which occasionally overwhelms the performers but generally remains a subtle sepia tone. That pervasive collector’s static suggests that Fairfield’s true preservationist urge is not primarily toward the music, but the medium.

These old records carry the marks of their many years, which give them each a unique character. If you compiled this same tracklist with records from another collector, it would be a very different album. The songs would be the same, but the textures and grain would change subtly but significantly from one physical object to the next. That is the most intriguing aspect of Unheard Ofs: He has based this entire compilation on the wear of specific, obsolete objects, which upholds the song’s excitability while casting them as fascinatingly dusty museum pieces.

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