Bass Hall turns into a Baptist church with the North Carolina duo, for one memorable evening in New Hampshire.
TEXT & PHOTOS BY JENNIFER KELLY
If you’re considering how to spend your evening, unaccompanied vocal music from the North Carolina Baptist tradition probably doesn’t sound like much fun. But for the North Carolina duo of House and Land, that raw, forthright tradition inspires an eerily evocative acoustic music where spine-chilling vocal descants collide with mysterious psychotropic drones. I went to Baptist Sunday school for years, and I never heard anything like this.
The show opens with a local trio known as Footings, that’s Thing in the Spring organizer Eric Gagne on electric guitar and vocals, violinist Elisabeth Fuschia and singer Candace Clement in the middle, singing harmonies. Unfortunately, the sound is a little off, with the electric guitar turned up high enough to drown out violins and both singers, which somewhat obscures the prettiness of songs like “Pajo” with its plucked and swooning throbs of strings, its tight dizzying harmonies and its gathering strength in chorus of “Keep breathing.” (You wonder if it’s about the Pajo from Slint.) On the BandCamp, Footings ventures further into 1990s indie rock blare, a la Superchunk and Sebadoh, and with the violin boosted high enough to register, and that would work too, but in the live show, the guitar blots out the details and even the songs themselves.
Bass Hall is a small room with extremely high ceilings, and hot enough tonight to make tuning a constant battle. The two bands solve the acoustic problem differently, Footings with the instruments plugged directly into amplification, House and Land with a complex network of microphones picking up sound from the variety of instruments they play. (It looks like they’re playing from inside an erector set.) These instruments are diverse and interesting, a couple of guitars, a fiddle, a banjo, a mandolin, a recorder (“here’s something you don’t know about recorders – they’re awesome” says Sarah Louise) and a shruti box.
Still, for the first song of the set, “Guide Me Oh Thou Great Jehovah,” from House and Land’s self-titled debut (out since last month on Thrill Jockey), it’s all about the voices – Sarah Louise with her piercing, otherworldly clarity, Sally Ann Morgan with a more blues-inflected, gutsy style. They find their notes effortlessly, without a reference point, in this warm July evening, tracing out main melodic lines and elaborate counterpoints in a song that sounds like the most ancient hymn, but also like an incantation.
Sarah Louise, in a dress made for church and a thick black braid tossed over her shoulder, takes the vocal lead in “Home Over Yonder,” with Sallie Anne Morgan accompanying on a fiddle that cavorts and frolics and drones, layering the hum of eternity under transitory pleasures. Morgan switches to banjo for “Wandering Boy,” and joins in tight, slightly dissonant harmonies with Sarah Louise, in a song that is, like a Shaker box, so primitively simple that it seems modern. The two of them are in what seem like telepathic sync, executing intricate fills and interplays without even looking at one another.
Morgan also sings on “False True Lover,” another traditional song she says she learned from a Shirley Collins recording. When she gets to the U.K., later this year, she says she’d like to meet Collins, and you can imagine they’d have lots to talk about.
Both Morgan and Louise take a turn playing the sruti box, a miniature harmonium played either on the lap with one’s hands (Morgan) or on the floor with a pedal while also playing a recorder (Louise). At one point, the box topples over and Louise has her hands full, so she gestures wildly to the first row, a member of which gets up and hastily props the instrument up.
The two women of House and Land differentiate the music they reference from shape note singing, which, they explain, is full of harmonies, whereas these songs rely on counterpoint and ornamentation. Still, whether secular or religious, the songs have a haunting aura of unornamented beauty and untamed longing. Even in a close room where the fans don’t work very well and the night-time temperature hovers in the 80s, these songs will put a chill down your back, so lovely and so wild.