omething music does at least as well as any art form save for perhaps the novel is put its participants in a place. How many albums do you associate with one particular place or time? Music genres? It’s curious, then, how little effort has been made to re-contextualize music. Think about music that you have very specific associations with: When was the last time those were challenged? Cut and paste artists like DJ Shadow are more concerned with creating something novel than challenging your perceptions of a certain sound. The internet’s mashup wizards have probably come closest, though how successfully? For every time DJ Danger Mouse’s Grey Album impressed, there were equally many listens that only served to remind how great the White Album is.
On Long Gone, Clothesline Revival attempt re-contextualize old-time Americana. The second album from Conrad Praetzel and Robert Powell samples vocals from old field recordings—many of them made by Alan Lomax—and constructs new foundations out of a flea market of instruments, employing everything from dobros to drum machines. Before you muff your ears and run away screaming “Moby!”, consider Clothesline Revival’s more holistic approach to their sampling: often copping entire vocal performances, Praetzel and Powell forgo original compositions, preferring instead to update the tapestries for music long thought to be untouchable.
Praetzel and Powell deserve credit for their choice of source material. Rather than pulling out dog-eared copies of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and gunning for obvious favorites like Clarence Ashley or the Carter Family, Praetzel and Powell raided the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress for many of these lesser-heard gems. Tracks like “Down in Arkansas” and “I’m Going Home on the Morning Train” are fascinating gothic oddities. Too many of these tracks, survive almost solely on the strength of the sample, and not on the original work of Praetzel and Powell. “Arkansas”’s invasive electric strumming and “Train”’s sunshine-y drumbeat don’t rob the recordings of their old-world charm wholesale, but they do go a long way towards distracting from a music whose primary strength is often the vocal melody.
When Praetzel and Powell do succeed, they fill in the cracks with a mix of grimy texture and subtle melody. On “Satisfied,” Long Gone’s best track, they open with a craggy riff before pulling back and letting the song’s infectious call-and-response chants pound over a minimal, rhythmic guitar figure. On “Big Boy, Can’t You Move ‘Em,” a sub lo-fi rumble treads over harmonica and a syrupy big-beat drum pattern. Too often, however, the line between Praetzel and Powell and their meaty samples is itchingly obvious, and the effect is a little like a badly photo-shopped tabloid lead: Fun to look at, obviously out of place.
There’s something to be said for afflicting the comfortable—and truly, there is hardly a genre more comfortable with its sound and legacy than American roots music—but Praetzel and Powell seem stuck in the middle: Too reverent to their source material to get risky with the arrangements, but also not interested in simply reproducing the songs. Clothesline Revival rob the songs of their age, but by using guitars and acoustic instruments and leaving the vocals mostly intact, they fail to update the songs in any interesting way. To be sure, they have a more onerous mission than internet DJ’s mashing up songs with mostly similar production and recording values, but their tasks are self-imposed. The samples taken here are of a time and a place, one that would be almost impossible to reproduce, and any true redevelopment of this material seems outside the scope of this project.