Never Ending Conversation
At the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor's recent Writers' Festival, I heard a folk duo from Arkansas, Still on the Hill. The husband of the team, Kelly Mulhollan, created a solo project entitled Never Ending Conversation (although the wife of the team, Donna Stjerna, is all over this album, too). It is an attempt to create art songs in a folk idiom, using the words of highly regarded poets for their texts.
It's an attempt that I can't stop listening to. It's a bit hard to describe because all the words that come to mind sound cliche and non-descriptive: Beautiful, melodic, haunting, playful, inventive . . . all those music review words that don't really tell you much. It's music that, say, Grieg might have composed, had he grown up in the Ozarks.
What I like most about it, though, is that I'm not yet able to sing along with any of the songs completely through. Pop music is created so that you can sing along on the second listen, and while there's something fun to appreciate about that, on this album only snippets of melody stay with me afterwards and I have to go back to the recording to hear what was next. It's music that has to be listened to carefully, lived with for a while.
At the same time, the instruments---banjo, mandolin, harmonica, and more---are familiar and comfortable. It lends a familiarity to the project that might not be there if it was orchestrated for the philharmonic. It's a brilliant combination, art song and folk instruments.
It also helps that Kelly's voice is a rich and expressive (without being overly so, as is so popular these days). In his lower register, he sometimes reminds me of that rich sound Gordon Lightfoot could create.
But let me say no more about the sounds. Go yourself to CD Baby and hear some samples of this album. If I were to direct you to my favorite cuts, I would have to say give these three a listen:
W.H. Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats, Part III"
the Pygmies of Gabon's "The Great Cold"
Jeremiah 4:19-26, "End of the World"
But you may prefer to lend your ear to one of the Langston Hughes poems. Or Blake, Stevens or cummings.
But give it a listen. More, go ahead and buy it from CD Baby (a site I've used before and love). It'll be worth the fifteen bucks to get lost in this fascinating, layered album.