Friday, April 16, 2010

Black Prairie: Feast of the Hunters' Moon

The curious thing about the Decemberists is that they don't often know what era they're writing music in. Sure, they have some songs that are clearly contemporary ("16 Military Wives"). But they seem more comfortable setting their songs in Moorish North Africa ("The Infanta"), Arthurian Britain (the whole of The Hazards of Love), medieval Japan ("The Crane Wife"), or World War I Europe ("The Legionnaire's Lament", "The Soldiering Life").

So it should come as little surprise that Black Prairie's debut album, Feast of the Hunters' Moon would rather exist in 19th-century Kentucky than 21st-century Portland. It's tempting to call Black Prairie a "Decemberists side project"--after all, it consists of more than half of the Decemberists--but it quickly becomes apparent that Black Prairie is a musical beast all its own. Decemberists Jenny Conlee (accordion), Nate Query (bass), and Chris Funk (let's be honest, what doesn't Chris Funk play?) join Jon Neufeld (guitar) and Annalisa Tornfelt (violin and vocals) to create a pastiche of Americana closer to the folk of Among the Oak & Ash than the indie pop you might expect.

Probably the most impressive thing about Feast of the Hunters' Moon is the incredible breadth of musical genres and styles it spans. The strongest influence is bluegrass, but zydeco, steel guitar string band, country, and even klezmer are right at home on the album. The original conception of Black Prairie was as an instrumental band, so it's no surprise that 9 or 10 of the 13 tracks are purely instrumental, creative explorations of what the band's unique combination of instruments can do.

It's ironic, then, that the vocal tracks are among the best on the album. Annalisa Tornfelt is not a singer by trade, and it shows, but her vocals lend an organic timelessness to the songs where they appear. "Single Mistake" stands out as fragile, sincere emotion. Probably the best track on the album is "Red Rocking Chair", which is a haunting interpretation of an old folk song.

Black Prairie's music probably won't see any radio play outside of the occasional college airwaves. (That said, think about Feast of the Hunters' Moon as the soundtrack for the hypothetical Damon Lindelof-Carlton Cuse adaptation of The Gunslinger from the Dark Tower and tell me it wouldn't be fantastic.) That's all the more reason for you to track it down on your own.

Currently listening: "Ich Will", Rammstein

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