Various Artists - Last Winter We Didn’t Sing [Thor’s Rubber Hammer Productions - 2009]Last Winter We Didn’t Sing presents eight takes on the winter months, most choosing the guitar to distil an ambient Americana with hints of folk and country established by labels like Chicago’s Kranky and Thrill Jockey. Here, it is stripped down to the barest essentials leaving a sombre, resonant soundtrack that could be employed to accompany sympathetic scenes of rural traditions threatened by industrialisation or harsh weather.
Indeed, many of the tracks feature little else than a lone guitar, bravely facing winter with a mere six strings for warmth. Scott Tuma’s opener, ‘Mr Beautiful Head’ is a rich, languorous piece whose strings pluck a loose and lazy lullaby, letting the slow notes overlap in an faintly optimistic melody that swims across the stereo field. Similarly, Chartreuse patiently release single notes in succession that hint at traditional song yet hide behind reverberations and mild distortion to create an indifferent turbulence. And not for the first time Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack is recalled by Nicholas Szczepanik’s closer (It’s Been So Cold Since You’ve Gone) whose guitar rings out what could be the same two notes and tempo as the programme’s theme, tenderly trembling against the wind and rain of the great outdoors.
All this much of a muchness is offset by three pieces: Susan Alcorn’s overly long ‘Tale of Late December’ sticks with a lone guitar but seems to follow what could be a serialist score from a Twentieth Century avant-garde composer where a succession of atonal chords, modulated by her guitars volume control, are curiously tense, taking successive steps up a creaky staircase in a haunted house. Meanwhile, Greg Davis follows Simon & Garfunkel’s take on ‘Silent Night’ but deliberately drowns it in recordings of news broadcasts, contrasting his solemn hymn with the hyped barking of the media – a simple statement that gets increasingly unpleasant. Preceding this intrusion is a gorgeous, understated interplay of French horn and cello on The Instruments ‘Last Holiday’ that shuffles along without guitar at its centre to provide the wholesome feeling of a fresh morning in the countryside.
The compilation’s main focus on slow, guitar-driven ambience makes it a relatively cohesive document that immediately casts the rare divergence in tone into stark contrast. In successfully creating a sense of an old fashioned winter with little warmth and rudimentary means, it risks leaving some audiences both cold and undernourished, hungry for deviation and dramaRussell Cuzner