It steals in softly, slowly, almost unnoticed, like the creaking of an old rocker, or branches against the roof. A voice as old as darkness, instrumentation that could have been taped any time in the last hundred years. I heard a bonnie crow call and it half scared me to death.
Crow Call is Ellie Bryan (vocals, banjo) and Peter Ruddy (12 string guitar, Bajo Quinto), and they want to kid you that their eponymous debut album was just released this week out of Minneapolis.
Don’t believe them. Crow Call is what Elvis was playing in the truck as he looked for parking outside Sun Studios. It is what Robert Johnson was playing on his ipod as he walked to the crossroads. It is what they played to Blind Joe Reynolds before they told him he’d been blinded, and it’s what Thomas Edison heard the first time he left his phonographic equipment unattended in a haunted house.
An album of spectral endings and darkened twists opens (as it ought) with “Your Ghost,” one of half dozen Crow Call originals that push “between the tree branches, lifting the veil...”, but which are gloriously indistinguishable from the four traditional numbers that also lurk within. “In The Pines,” which sounds as though it were recorded among them; “I Wish My Baby Was Born” (better known, maybe, as “Died for Love,” but accurately titled here nonetheless), and a pair of glorious murder ballads, the so gratuitously gruesome “Down in the Willow Garden” and the slightly calmer “Pretty Polly,” that set the stage for many of Crow Call’s originals, and much of their mood as well.
Shadows play, firelight flickers, candle gutter and the gloom gathers no matter what modern accoutrements you surround yourself with; this is not an album for downloading from Bandcamp (although that’s the only place to get it right now), it’s one for piecing together, cut by cut, from fragile shellac discs, bought piecemeal and scratchy from fragile shacks and broken barns on the hillside tracts that Googlemaps forgot. For that is how the songs themselves hang, each one in splendid, ancient isolation, demanding more than mere silence before the next one begins.
“Song About Winter,” with its desolate vistas and suspended dread; the eerie instrmental “Past Lives” “Oak Trees,” “They Know” and “Walks at Night,” which builds with the sense (by the pricking of my thumbs) that something ... beautiful? Awful? Awesome?... this way comes. But it does so tantalizingly wordlessly. Crow Call’s lividity lies in their sound, not their lyrics; in the interplay between timeless voice and ageless string, between instrument and intention.
Bryan’s magnificent vocal, strident but yearning, lost but knowing, may point out directions that your thoughts mat choose to drift on. But Crow Call is so much more than the sum of its parts, and so much more than a collection of songs. It is Woody whistling nervously as he crosses a darkened rail yard; it is Lead Belly humming tunelessly as he gazes through his prison bars; it is Richard awaiting Mimi, the day before they first played together.
It is, quite simply, stunning.