DEVIN HOFF – Voices From The Empty Moor (Songs Of Anne Briggs) (Kill Rock Stars)

Voices From The Empty MoorAmerican bassist, composer, and arranger Devin Hoff’s album Voices From The Empty Moor (Songs Of Anne Briggs) condenses the wild and weird unearthly folk eerie ooze of that wonderful 70’s band Comus into a simmering Hallow Eve’s broth of deep, dark, and any very aged forest’s spectral murmured melodic ruminations.

A bit of British folk history: Anne Briggs was a major British folk force in the 60’s and early 70’s while collecting, performing, and later writing music that influenced Maddy Prior, June Tabor, Bert Jansch, Sandy Denny, and Richard Thompson, who used her melody line from ‘Willie O’ Winsbury’ for his Liege And Lief song, ‘Farewell, Farewell’. And current singers Eliza Carthy and Kate Rusby love her, too. So, let’s just simply say, “Now be thankful”.

Indeed, the first traditional song, ‘She Moved Through The Fair’ conjures, with a somber instrumental mood, old magic – while DH’s string bass saws through ancient air that rises from the d’ Urbervilles’ freehold crypt to sing the tragic song of Thomas Hardy’s Tess (more about whom later!). The tune has infinite tire tread – with tap rooted pathos to spare.

Next, an Anne Briggs’s original song, ‘You Go Your Way’, just oozes with plucked bass notes through a tough romantic memory that conjures the very same aged oaken voiced vibe of (the great!) Bert Jansch. Sharon Van Etten guests on vocal. This is eerie and quite beautiful music.

And then things get wonderfully weird: The traditional ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’ saws a bit more through old forest fears, while Julia Holter’s voice haunts with a (perhaps) sad and ghostly prudent wisdom, as the tune dissolves into funeral march with a wailed warning. This is not for the faint-of-heart and is much removed from the much-loved Steeleye Span’s nice pop folk sound of ‘All Around My Hat’ or ‘Thomas The Rhymer’. No matter. Both are great!

Then, DH’s string bass touches deep early sins during the instrumental ‘Mae Bonny Lad’, while (Wow!) Howard Wiley’s sax enters with confessional jazzy forgiveness. This is watching constellation stuff. A slight comparison can be made with the absolutely wonderful June Tabor ECM records, Quercus and Nightfall.

Shannon Lay guests on the bass pulsed (and original Anne Brigg’s tune) ‘Living By The Water’, which sings with a scarecrow’s voiced lost love. This is deep emotive stuff.

The album just gets deeper into that d’Urbervilles’ freehold vault. ‘The Snows They Melt The Soonest/My Bonny Boy’ twists a musical braid with a string bass and Alejandro Farha’s oud. It’s a bit of magic. And just so you know, the traditional ‘Willie O’ Winsbury’ (a personal favourite!) also gets an instrumental paintbrush stroke. If anything, the deep bass melody and string voice – set against the Jim White Fairport ‘Sloth’ impassioned battlefield percussion vibe – only enhances the beauty of the tune. Then ‘Black Waterside’ is graced with Emmett Kelly’s voice. And yeah, this is a gift for fans of Bert Jansch.

The brief instrumental ‘Lowlands’ crosses the folk finish line with its ominous glance into the pages of (once again) Thomas Hardy’s Tess novel, with its cruelly ironic “Cross-in-Hand stone” scene of ill omen” where abandoned Tess must pledge sacred silence to evil Alec – the man of her eternal ruin – and she can only confess, “I learned things in my troubles”. Indeed, this music is a dark sympathetic soundtrack to those “troubles”. But indeed (also!), this album sings with that “learned” wisdom of any simmering Hallow Eve’s deep dark forest spectral melodic murmur, that even after countless years of ritual rites, still conjures those very magical and age old musical ruminations.

Bill Golembeski

Artist’s website:

‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’ – official video: