Label: Saddle Creek
Good folk music doesn’t come easy in these hyper-technological times, though it’s not for lack of effort. While the world that populates modern folk music largely tramps the same well-worn paths established by earlier generations – dusty roads and wide rivers; stone walls and steel bars; the alternately beautiful/naïve/unspeakably stupid girl who either finds true love or a rock-assisted death near the banks of a river; and the railroad of your choice – the number of first-rate folk-based artists working today feels disconcertingly small. This isn’t a purist’s lament and there are always exceptions, but there is a kernel of truth in any argument that folk music circa 2011 is in a sad state of decline.
Consisting of the husband-wife duo of Chris Senseney (who’s from small Nebraska town…instant folk cred!) and Stefanie Drootin-Senseney, Big Harp does well enough on debut LP White Hat to suggest they’re capable of pushing folk-influenced music in unique directions. Opening track “Nadine” is at first glance a typical murder ballad, but the duo puts a clever spin on it, tacitly acknowledging the song’s familiar subject matter (“She went off to California like in every other song“) and nicely blending Senseney’s bluesy baritone with a piano accompaniment evocative of an Old West saloon. The song drips with dark humor as it tracks Nadine’s ultimate revenge against a philandering, womanizing man: “He was looking to get laid/ Man she laid him down for sure,” Senseney deadpans near the song’s conclusion. In other places, the band punctuates their songs with spikier edges, particularly in the abrasive and almost-dissonant electric guitar on road song “Steady Hand Behind the Wheel” and” “All Bets Are Off.” A song about a con artist who sells salvation to a small town before absconding with a couple hundred bucks, “Out in the Field” is given a similar treatment, with Senseney also adding short, manic howls to the song to chilling effect.
While less adventurous, most of the traditionally-inclined songs on White Hat are equally interesting. “Some Old World I Used to Know” and “Everybody Pays” are endearing ballads, replete with classic folk/Americana iconography like dirt roads, bars, pool halls and dusty wind. “Goodbye Crazy City” – a song whose speaker ends up a lot older and a lot broker after being kicked around by the cruel, big city – features a gentle acoustic introduction and takes a somewhat whimsical view of such troubles. It’s hard to suppress at least a wry smile when Senseney sings about “all the girls and drugs I did when I was in my prime.” The album closes with a gorgeous piano ballad; a companion piece to the first track, “Oh Nadine” is sung from the point of a view of a father who has not the first clue as to the type of sordidness his sweet little daughter’s gotten mixed up in. It’s the album’s most disarming moment and one whose sentiment lingers long after its final notes have ended.
White Hat isn’t without its shortcomings, as an excessively uniform pace lends a degree of monotony to the title track, “Here’s Hoping” and “Let Me Lend My Shoulder.” Such flaws are rare, though, and almost in its entirety the album acts as a compelling re-casting of traditional American musical forms. With quality folk music becoming increasingly hard to find or, worse, irrelevant in today’s musical landscape, something as mature and finely crafted as White Hat serves as a promising reminder that inventive ideas can still be eked out of a mostly quaint genre.
by Eric Dennis
Key Tracks: Everybody Pays