Long before a single oscillation had passed my earhole, I knew that the pairing of the High Americana artist Two Dark Birds with the Woodstock-based producer/composer/songwriter Chris Maxwell was an inspired and auspicious one. The musical math in my head, in fact, produced a record that is rather startlingly close to the one that has come to pass: Bow, the latest luminous and ambitious collection of poet-grade and quietly experimental folk music written by Steve Koester and performed by his loose assemblage of Catskill cronies.
Most of the players here, many of whom you’ve heard if not heard of, earned their musical stripes elsewhere but live and work here now, forming a kind of new model collective for the post-industry music world, where you might as well live and play in the Catskills, for all anyone cares. Few, however, take on the Catskills as subject and as inspiration as directly as Koester, the Bard of Pakatakan Mountain. And yet…
Bow is bookended with prayers – literal prayers written in the command syntax of beseechment: teach me, show me, help me. Funny twist, though: While the record-closing “When Morning Comes” is a conventionalized and austere piece of Appalachian (or Catskillian, or generally Eastern Seaboard) craggy mountain folk, the album opening prayer, “Dear Whoever Whoever” is anything but. Its wrenched, surreal agnosticism comes couched from the start in a strange Flamenco chromaticism. When Koester and his nylon string are eventually joined by other instruments and voices, they reinforce that harmonic and textural otherness. It’s a tonality that almost borders on non-Western, and it hovers peripherally throughout the album. It is not indigenous to the Catskills; but the mythic quests, spells and awakenings that undergird this record cannot be geographically or chronologically fixed either.
Steve Koester doesn’t do anything casually. The last Two Dark Birds record, Songs for the New, was a shimmering work of chamber folk/rock with Baroque eruptions that would come out of nowhere and recede back into Koester’s basal setting of voice and guitar, the default that best suits his high character and expressively craggy singing. Bow is both more Spartan and more tense. With Maxwell, Koester has crafted a narrative and sonic environment in which anything can happen; but this time out, things are snakier and darker. The foreign elements and non-folk sounds slink in and do their work – exotic lines, queasy ether and sometimes comically incongruous sound events – and slink out. They don’t always mean you well. The album moves ever-so-imperceptibly from dark to light, and becomes more and more Catskills as it goes.
There are no proper drums on Bow, but one of the few songs that feature percussion, “Pretty Wing,” manages to achieve a kind of soul swagger reminiscent of the Stones in early-’70s gospel/rock mode. One of the keynote ambient roots songs, “Fathers & Sons,” evokes a similar sense of soul/folk. Bow is song cycle with undercurrents of an immanent eco-spirituality and dream consciousness, but nothing like enlightenment. Lost and found, and never arriving, are key themes throughout. Waking up every day is a rebirth, but rebirth is a mournful parting from the ideal. In “First Breath,” Koester sings, “At some point, the signal is sent out that you are ready for the green tree air of the waking world, and you begin your descent” in a delightfully affected dropped-pitch voice, mildly reminiscent of Dylan circa Nashville Skyline, while the minor chord pattern evokes “Working Class Hero.”
Like most great producers, Maxwell’s impact here is as notable for what he prohibits as for what he provides. While the sonic cast of characters on Bow is really rather larger and more diverse – choral at times, chamber at others, often trad/folk and occasionally even a little synthy in a watercolor way – the deployment is strict. The focus on singer and on song is unwavering, and when the production/arrangement flourishes do occur, they are almost invariably…a little weird: a friction, an interloper, a spooked timbre, a jarring tonality. The same aesthetic devices are used to devastating effect on Maxwell’s recent solo record Arkansas Summer, and between that and this, one begins to see the outline of a new, progressive Catskill sound of sorts. All hail!
I wasn’t present at the sessions, so I can’t say for sure how much credit Maxwell gets for Koester’s vocal performances on Bow, but they are some of the most authoritative and physical of the veteran songwriter’s lengthy and prolific career.
Two Dark Bird celebrates the October release of Bow with a show at Colony in Woodstock on Friday, September 29 at 8 p.m. Cassidy and the Music joins them on the bill. Tickets cost $12 in advance, $15 on the day of the show. Colony is located at 22 Rock City Road in Woodstock. For information, visit www.colonywoodstock.com.