Thursday, May 3, 2007

Sepiachord review

Christian Williams' second CD, Built with Bones, is an outstanding collection of Western Folk. It takes us on a ride deep into the Badlands of Americana that is so fraught with darkness, that the pilgrimage trims all the fat from country music. Have no worries, though. Williams' voice and storytelling are strong enough to support us on the journey. Christian's baritone isn't thick, but it is so solid that even when it trembles it can support the world, much less this album's thirteen campfire tales.

When it comes to instrumentation Built with Bones is as simply adorned, as uncluttered as the prairie. Williams is a talented singer and player. He knows that his voice and guitar are all it takes to evoke his songs. He does add other instruments, but not frivolously. Each instrument that Christian includes (and he plays them all himself) adds something to the song - it helps set the stage or emphasize elements of the story. The saloon piano on "Never the Widow" is particularly evocative. No bit of banjo or strum of auto-harp is out of place.

If these are country chronicles they aren't mere accounts of life on the trail. They are tales with a Biblical scope. On the recording's first track, "You Ain't Exempt", the narrator is no less than Death itself. On "Something Like Love", the last track found here, we are entertained with a love song set against the backdrop of armageddon. In between we bare witness to hangings, murders, vengeance and soul-stirring longing.

But listen closely. If you don't you're likely to miss the nature of the stories. "When Its Roar Woke Me Up" is an excellent example of the careful listener being rewarded. On the CD's second piece Williams takes the concept of folk song to a primordial basis. This is the retelling of a Stone Age man and his fated battle with a beast. The narrator isn't a pioneer with a pistol on his hip, he's just a man who's only tools are fire and stone. In the hands of another songwriter, like The Decemberists' Colin Meloy, this man-versus-monster memoir would be tempered with a nod-and-wink sense of wit. To his credit Christian Williams succeeds in playing this amazing song of revenge straight. But what makes the close listening pay off is the incidental reference to the prehistoric warrior covering himself with a bearskin rug. Yes, there is revenge here, just not the vengeance a casual listener will catch.

You can't have vengeance without death, and without being haunted before death. Repeated listenings reveal that we are around a campfire when we listen to Built with Bones. These aren't just glimpses of the plains and descriptions of the day. They are ghost songs. From beginning to end this album is littered with the dead. The dead and the living are built with bones, these songs are built with bones, the campfire we sit around is built with bones.

On Built with Bones, Death takes its due, God takes the world, and the Snake still wins.

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