The Horse’s Ha – Of the Cathmawr Yards

January 01, 1970

(Hidden Agenda)


Given the musical pedigrees of co-founders Jim Elkington and
Janet Beveridge Bean, this debut from The Horse’s Ha is pretty much what you’d
expect when an expat Brit and Zincs member collaborates with a Freakwater
heroine. Forming a sort of Chicago underground super group by recruiting
cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm (Wilco, Jim O’Rourke), bassist Nick Macri (Mark
Eitzel, Jeremy Enigk) and drummer Charles Rumback (Leaves, Via Tania),
songwriter Elkington taps the historical link between Appalachia and British
folk music, but then runs it through a Windy City filter for additional –
sometimes jazzy – flavoring. The mostly acoustic settings, sparse instrumentation,
and trad feel may suggest folk-music simplicity, but as the songs unfurl they
reveal sophisticated arrangements and interplay to match the fantastical and
sometimes sinister natural surroundings of the narratives.


The album title is inspired by a fictitious Wales
graveyard in a Dylan Thomas short story that also gave the band its name, and
Elkington’s Brit-folk crisp guitar patterns – think James Yorkston – provide an
earthy and Autumnal baseline setting for the witches, “nagging ghosts” and “talking
woodcuts” that populate the narratives. The stories read more mysterious than
Freakwater’s everywoman lyrics, and Elkington tempers his Zincs-tendency to aim
at our funny bones. Instead, the lyrics rely more on striking images – “silver
sheaths reflecting the light,” “waltzes in starlight,” and “owl chorus hoots” –
that project the listener into the dead-quiet and heightened awareness of a
moon-lit early morn. But despite the dream-like wanderings of the narrators,
the stories often root in a desire for, or appreciation of, home: “I’d give my
right tit to catch a ride/and I’d throw in my left if it meant getting home
before the light,” Elkington sings on the shuffling “Wild’s Empty Bedroom.”


Elkington and Beveridge Bean won’t remind anyone of Phillips/Cass
when they duet, but his limited vocal range benefits from her quavering alto,
and the two develop a warm blend whether harmonizing or singing counter-point.
And though you can say, for instance, that disc-opener “Plumb” is done in the
Brit-folk style, or “Heiress” is rooted in country, little here reads that
straightforward. But the twists are subtle and pulled off with unfailing grace.
The interplay between Macri and Rumback is often so intimate that it’s easy to
overlook the interactive listening and top-notch playing that’s going on. And
though Lonberg-Holm plays it straight for the most part, the melodies and
accents he runs through the songs reflect his expertly refined ear. Here and
there the musicians approach more free territory (most notably Lonberg-Holm’s
solo freakout on “Map of Stars”), and the instrumental “Liberation” is so good
you long for a few more of these interludes. But that’s not to suggest the rest
is any less enthralling on this sparkling debut. More please, soon.


Standout Tracks: “Rising
Moon” “Liberation” “The Piss Choir” JOHN SCHACHT


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