Well, this is something different. For the ninth outing in the series, producer Stuart Hyatt has put together a special dual-language release that combines cosmic Americana with Western ambient and Middle Eastern influences in a devotional song cycle set to Arabic and English poetry that examines some of Earth’s most iconic and ancient forests, revealing our complicated relationship with the natural world.
Featuring himself alongside Marisa Anderson, Fadi Tabbal, Dena El Saffar, Danny Paul Grody, Bob Hoffnar, Tomás Lozano, Nathan Bowles, Alex Roldan and Youmna Saba who composed and performed the music, a melange of pedal steel, banjo, oud, hurdy-gurdy and guitar drones, the words are narrated by Arabic musicologist and oud player Saba, who wrote all the Arabic poems, and North Carolina based singer H.C. McEntire on the Thoreau-like odes to nature written by Todd Fleming Davis.
It’s divided into two halves each with eight tracks, East and West, the majority featuring the image of a girl in relation to nature and the universe, opening with Saba narrating ‘La’āli’ (“This loyal, sincere, truthful heroine fixed up the pile of sand, where a girl laid down her body, and bled her emotions as a nectar for the earth”) to a miasma of organic and electronic music, setting the ambience for what follows as she sings about a day when she can be free of inner doubts and fears on ‘Thāk-al-yawm’.
A poem about deceptive love, ‘Badron Wa Qina‛’ is more intoned to a drone backdrop, while the largely spoken ‘’Arāha’ touches on death, the ancient earth “forgiving, peaceful, understanding”, to an ethereal swirl just as ‘In‛ikās’ again speaks of an embracing darkness. The otherworldly mood is sustained in the final three tracks of the first half, ‘’Aylūl’ and the brief one-line ‘Ar-raḥīl ‘with their themes of the transitions between day and night, and season to season, and the more brooding, contemplative ‘Ḥalaqah ’Azaliyyah’ that touches on the comfort of the celestial and eternal.
McEntire picks up the baton for part two with the scampering rootsy Americana of ‘The Sharp Smell Of Cedar’, a vision of fledgling trees taking back the land left fallow and nurturing the eco system. The shimmering ‘Before We’re Born’ continues the idea of the cycle of life, about “how humans, as they rot back into the world that made them, become grass and goldenrod”. Guitar notes cascading against watery banjo chimes and keyboards, ‘The Scars Of Recent History’ addresses the rape of the land, from the days of stripping it for coal to today’s deforestations “when without any shame, we construct machines that can make a mountain disappear, no regard for the memory or souls of trees”.
The relationship between humans and the land is further evoked with the summer twilight bluegrass of ‘In The Gloaming’, as McEntire tells of how “the old woman takes a crow’s feather from a chest made of cedar/Like an aging river, she tells the girl how cedars share their long lives, joining us to water and sky, providing passage through the body of this unnamed country”.
It returns to the farm with the banjo flecked tribal colours of ‘Drowning In A Sky Of Cotton’, an sensory evocation of being overwhelmed in different ways on hot days by the smells of agricultural chemicals, the dust in the hayloft and “the rain of dried leaves the combine sends toward heaven”.
Thoreau’s American Pastoralism is evoked again on the simple vignette of ‘Each Year’ with its tranquil images of cows wandering to the river or rubbing up against cedars and shaking their branches in a poem about a sense of things we can rely upon.
It ends with the fingerpicked and echoey narration of ‘In The Floodplain’ which again speaks of the soothing balm of being one with the trees and nature, of the cycle of life as “the air fills with the fragrance of honeysuckle, and the girl stands to sing, Let everything that blossoms, blossom!” And, finally, we find ourselves in ‘The Pasture’, padding percussion, guitar waterfalls and a murmuration of electronics clothing a hymn as, the cedars “erect and alert, look like a children’s choir practicing: chins jut and mouths chant the words of a song that calls for light to come, for soil to offer what it can, for rain to fall when it might”, connecting souls and spirits, and gathering memories in the girl’s reverie of childhood and of the “hallway light a sliver on the floor, and the sound of the trees growing in the dark as she sleeps, bones stretching, each waking four inches taller”.
A serene reassurance of the constancy of nature, of passings and rebirths, of our connection with the land and the forests that give us life, it might just be the perfect album for these troubled and uncertain times.
Artists’ website: www.fieldworks.bandcamp.com/
‘The Sharp Smell Of Cedar’: