Mossy Kilcher - Northwind Calling [Tompkins Square - 2020]
There seems to be a never-ending supply of recordings reclaimed from the lost alleys of the past, and Tompkins Square have reissued another beauty. Mossy Kilcher, then known as Mossy Davidson, self-released these recordings in 1977 as a double album, now very much a rarity (and as I’m reviewing a digital version I did check Discogs, and it’s both expensive and very beautiful) but now available for us all to enjoy. Music runs in Kilcher’s family, as her niece, Jewel, is ‘Alaska’s most successful recording artist of all time’ - though despite that claim to fame, I’ll admit to being blissfully ignorant of Jewel’s works. However, Northwind Calling is undoubtedly an unearthed treasure.
Kilcher’s sound is describable from the first track; this is polite shorthand for ‘it all sounds the same,’ which it does, but this is only a criticism if the ‘one repeated song’ is a bad song: in Kilcher’s case it is a good song - with caveats. If there is a formula here, it combines a foundation of hippy-ish picked folk guitar and voice with idiosyncratic colouring from flute, harmonica, banjo, and piano. The cumulative effect is of a blissed out Americana - or more accurately a blissed out Western soundtrack. This sense of place is important, and central to Kilcher’s work; her songs observe and celebrate Alaska, her homeland. So whilst I said ‘hippy-ish’ earlier, this does represent a general tone but there’s nothing florid about Kilcher’s lyrics, which are often somewhat detached depictions of the flora and fauna surrounding her. The songs thus operate almost as sonic nature writing - aided by the use of field recordings embedded in some of the songs. Truth be told, it’s hard to pick out too many stand-out tracks, but Sea Man has some beautiful vocal harmonies, as does Cloudy Day; whilst Where Does This River Flow combines haunting, yearning verses with a childlike ‘la la la’ chorus. Little Brown Violins effectively deploys recordings of birds and rivers, flitting in and out of Kilcher’s voice and guitar. What Is That Light contains the frankly beautiful lyric: ‘Wealth is gained and wealth is gone, but the gold of the stars remains,’ and I feel this simple, even primitive, communion with nature stands at the centre of the album - a strong message equally inspiring to a hippy as an eco-terrorist. Perhaps predictably, it is the darkest piece on the album that catches my ear, Alone Too Long; the press release mentions Kilcher alongside Sibylle Baier as another rediscovered ‘Lost [Woman] of Song,’ and Alone too Long is Kilcher’s The End, bleak, plaintive, and beautiful.
I did mention ‘caveats,’ but these are also the selling points of the album: I think many people will find Northwind Calling to be simplistic and innocent - but for some this will enchant, for some it will annoy. On top of the ‘hippy-ish’ descriptor, it would be fair - and not intended as a negative criticism - to say that Kilcher’s works here also remind me of ‘children’s songs’ albums from my childhood, and a genre I’ll falsely call ’Christian songs’: straightforward folky songs that can only exude an innocence, even purity. Kilcher’s vocals largely avoid any great emotive flourishes, often giving the songs a detachment, a sense of narrating the world around her; it’s not the austere beauty of Shirley Collins though, it’s much warmer, breezy even. Northwind Calling is a very picturesque album, and again, that’s not meant as a criticism.Martin P