Refried Southern Journey

New Orleans producers Tangle Eye tap into the power of the Alan Lomax catalog

The word "remix" almost invariably implies radical surgery that drastically alters the cosmetics of a performance. But every once in a while the procedure turns out to be surprisingly noninvasive. Take Tangle Eye's re-envisioning of eleven classic Alan Lomax folk recordings that were recently reissued as part of Rounder Records' thirteen-volume Southern Journey series. Rather than turning a field holler into a dance cut by grafting digital musculature on it, the New Orleans-based team of Scott Billington and Steve Reynolds keep their reconstruction roots-based on Alan Lomax's Southern Journey Remixed. Their additional production maintains an acoustic feel on the mostly a cappella songs that musicologist Lomax collected in the rural South.

Lomax's collections have had a profound effect on American popular music. Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, and Mississippi Fred McDowell are among the important artists first recorded by Lomax and his father, John. His work and that of folk archivist Harry Smith, who reissued commercial hillbilly and blues songs from the Twenties and Thirties in his 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, inspired the folk revival of the Fifties and Sixties as well as rock bands such as the Rolling Stones and the Byrds. More recently, Lomax recordings were used in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, while Moby's "Natural Blues" sampled a song from his collection, Vera Ward Hall's "Trouble So Hard."

The artists selected by Tangle Eye for Southern Journey Remixed avoid the better-known names in the Lomax catalog in favor of amateur singers with extraordinary voices, such as the Bright Light Quartet, a group of Atlantic Coast fishermen. On "Chantey," Billington and Reynolds transform an African-American work song into a thumping, pumping, prereggae rocksteady blowout complete with Chris "Poet" Wilson's snapping bass and a brass section by teenage virtuosos Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews and James Martin. The quartet's energetic voices mesh seamlessly with the Jamaican arrangement, recalling the glory days of spiritual harmony groups like the Heptones or the Mighty Diamonds, thanks to Dow Brain's churchy keyboards.

Tangle Eye's two contrarians: Scott Billington (left) and 
Steve Reynolds
Rick Olivier
Tangle Eye's two contrarians: Scott Billington (left) and Steve Reynolds

But the sea chantey "Evalina," taken from Southern Journey, Volume 8: Velvet Voices, which forms the basis of "Chantey," is anything but focused on the afterlife. The quartet lustily glorify the titular gal with her "money 'cumulator right between her legs," boasting, "I can get it any ol' time I want it, three times a day." The earthy lyrics come as a surprise on a song whose vocal style suggests a rousing hymn, even though the words are loud and clear on the Tangle Eye mix once you listen past their heady instrumentation. Especially fun are the "come on, come on" cries between verses that seem to urge on the modern-day rocksteady musicians. On the source recording, these interjections are longer and probably served as timing devices as the fishermen hauled in nets to the rhythm of the song.

Thanks to the O Brother soundtrack, the song "O Death" has become identified with bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley, who wails like the reaper himself in his angst-ridden rendition. Bessie Jones is more subdued in her performance, which was recently included on Southern Journey, Volume 12: Georgia Sea Islands. Tangle Eye matches her wearily mournful delivery with lonely old-time fiddling by Dirk Powell. The interplay between voice and violin underscores an aspect of "O Death" obscured by Ralph Stanley's interpretation: its dialogue between a sinner and the Grim Reaper. Meanwhile David Torkanowsky adds an icy overlay on the Hammond B-3 organ.

"Hangman" demonstrates the evocative power of a brief vocal snippet. The song opens as Almeda Riddle repeats a single phrase -- "Hangman, hangman, slacken up your line" -- against a developing background of Johnny Vidacovich's thrashing drum kit and an unaccredited reed flute accompaniment, but it doesn't feel as if the producers are simply dropping perfunctory samples of her voice into the mix. Her sweet bleat of an entreaty makes an organic fit, and when she finally launches an entire stanza of verse over the intensifying accompaniment, her words carry the force of an incantation.

"Soldier" does even more with less. The 1960 source recording "I am a Soldier in the Army of the Lord" on Velvet Voices was captured in an explosive church performance with unusually muddy audio by Lomax. Billington and Reynolds clarify the Peerless Four's shouted line "I am a soldier" so that it sounds better than the original, floating it within a house arrangement that blooms into a full-tilt gospel extravaganza as Davell Crawford's keyboard spits curlicues of fire.

The genius of this and other tracks on the disc is the way the music deepens the impact of the Four's vocals. Even when the inventive backing tracks of Tangle Eye's many collaborators burst into dazzling solos, they support the singers instead of supplanting them. And the singers are extraordinary. Their heartfelt performances are the equivalent of folk art, possessing a power and authenticity few professionals can match. Tangle Eye's ability to meld these historic recordings from the past with fresh modern-day arrangements bodes well for the future of the remix.

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