COMPLEX, STRANGE, & PLEASING The Horse’s Ha

The Zincs meet
Freakwater: on the stabilizing voices of  James Elkington and Janet Bean.

 

BY MICHAEL D. AYERS

 

According to James Elkington, frontman for Chicago’s
post-folk band the Zincs, Freakwater’s Janet Bean was possibly “having a
moment” the first time he met her.  It
was at a gig where they were sharing the bill and after his set, he found her
huddled up like a little turtle recoiled in its shell.  “I went downstairs on my own to store all my
equipment and heard a rustling from a booth in the corner,” Elkington
recalls.  “So I went to investigate and
found Janet lying on her back in a very padded green winter jacket.”  Indeed, she was enamored with what Elkington
was doing on stage with the Zincs: “I thought he sounded like the velvet fog of
indie music,” she says.  Needless to say,
they hit it off and decided to do something together in learning cover songs with
the goal of playing them in expensive wine bars.  They had a perfect name concocted for that
plan, too: the Horse’s Ha (borrowing from the Dylan Thomas short story about
Zombies). 

 

They started off tackling heavyweights. Tom Waits, Velvet
Underground, Fairport Convention. 
“Anything we could think of that I could manage vocally,” Bean
recalls.  But over the years, they
developed into something more than just a cover band looking for some
cash.  Listening to their debut Of The Cathmawr Yards, it’s quite
striking how well Elkington and Bean’s voices interlock; Bean has always had a
distinct squeak to her voice; in this case, her soft, delicate high pitchness
complements Elkington’s deep baritone in ways that both of their prior work
isn’t able to demonstrate.  It’s not to
say that their prior work is limiting; its not. 
But it’s this initial notion of opposites attract that is both inviting
and intriguing. 

 

“[Freakwater’s
Catherine Irwin] and I have been singing together for so long and
have grown to have a very good understanding of what will most likely come
next, but with Jim I don’t and I love the challenge,” Bean says.  “I am often taken by surprise at
where the melody goes. His tunes, when he gives me a demo tape, take me
a listen or two before I feel comfortable with them. Not just comfortable singing
them, but actually listening to them!”

 

The
music within is much more in line with the Zincs’ brand of jazzy born folk than
the rootsy Americana of Freakwater.  For
example, “Asleep in a Waterfall” feels more of something that floats along,
where you’re following their voices and not the actual song’s structure- yet
there is one there.  The bass led “Left
Hand” is augmented by Calexico’s trumpet player Martin Wenk and the band is
rounded out by cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassist Nick Macri and drummer
Charles Rumback, both rhythmic scenesters in numerous Chicago bands over the years.  And while you can pick up distinctly on the
interplay between jazz and folk arrangements, Bean describes the Horse’s Ha as
drawing from one source in particular.    

 

“This
band has very much an English influence. Jim is a big fan of Bert Jansch and
stylistically I think there are nods to Jansch’s sound, and to Fairport’s
sound, to that whole 60’s English folk revivalist sound,” Bean
explains.  “So the Horse’s Ha is
a distillation of all those things poured through the hands and mind
of a British guy that loved Chicago
bands from the 80’s and 90s.”

 

Listen to “The Piss Choir,” a cello augmented, driving song
that has Bean and Elkington trading off vocals at times, at others singing next
to each other.  You’ll find the song is
complex, strange and pleasing at the same time. 
Above all, it makes the case that a covers record in the Horse’s Ha
future should be left alone. 

 

Concludes Elkington, “You can hear everyone thinking about
what they’re playing from start to finish, and Janet just knocked it out of the
park with her singing. I took a lot of pleasure in seeing [the music] take this
strange form that I couldn’t really have predicted.”

 

 

 

 

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