It would seem therefore to best follow the advice of the King of Hearts to Alice when asked where to begin: “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.” I shall follow this practical advice.
Snakefarm are the collaboration between singer Anna Domino and her guitarist partner Michael Delory. ‘Songs From My Funeral’ could well be described as a concept album in that the themes for the songs are murder ballads, songs about death and the consequences of the opening up of the American Midwest through the building of railways; sometimes more than one motif is included in a song. Even the lullaby sung at the end is distinctly unsettling. All the songs are reinterpretations of traditional American folk ballads. An interesting, if somewhat academic, discussion on the resurgent interest of these American folk classics and the relation between them and the psyche of present day post-millennium America can be found in Anat Pick’s essay: ‘Death and Democracy: Snakefarm’s Songs from my Funeral and the New World Gothic’. 
Now all this sounds quite gloomy and depressing, but it’s not. Thanks to Snakefarm’s reworking of these folk classics, the results whilst dark and atmospheric are actually surprisingly up-tempo. The darkness comes from Anna Domino’s vocals, which through the use of filters and other effects sounds cool, sultry but at times also detached and remote. There are distinct similarities here to the voices of Laurie Anderson and of Margo Timmins (singer with the Cowboy Junkies). This coolness is largely counterbalanced by the imaginative use of sampling, wind instruments and drum programming, and of time signatures, hence the seemingly contradictory musical styles suggested at the beginning.
This is a good place to introduce the musicians. They are:
Anna Domino – vocals and vocal effects, electric guitar and accordion.
Michael Delory – electric, acoustic and classical guitars, dobro, banjo and keyboard and drum programming.
Paul Dugan – upright, Arco and Fender bass,Stephan Ulrich – electric guitar solos and effects.
Paul Shapiro – tenor sax, flute and recorder.
So to the tracks themselves:
St James-This is St James Infirmary Blues, an anonymous American folk song made famous by Louis Armstrong. Based on an 18th century traditional folk song ‘The Unfortunate Rake’, it tells of a youth cut down in his prime through pursuing morally questionable activities of drinking, gambling and whoring. The song itself evolved into another song, also performed on this CD: ‘The Streets of Laredo’.
You know that Snakefarm’s version is going to that bit different, for the CD begins with the effect of a tape recording being switched on and speeding up. The track itself starts with some nice tight guitar bass and drums played with real swing. Anna Domino’s vocals are processed through a filter, making it sound a bit as if she’s singing down a telephone line. Domino reverses the gender of the characters and sings the song from the perspective of a man visiting his dead girlfriend at St James infirmary – a distinctly unsettling device. Between verses there is imaginative use of percussion, horns, wah-wah and effects. At times Domino’s voice is overdubbed, the whole effect producing a danceable version of what, ostensibly, is a downbeat song.
Rising Sun- This is of course ‘The House of the Rising Sun’; but not like you’ve heard it before. Essentially a song about life ‘gone wrong’ in New Orleans, it is claimed that the song was originally a 16th century English folk song about a Soho brothel. Be that as it may, most people know the song having been made famous by the Animals. The Animals’ version transposes the narrative from the point of view of a woman lead into a life of degradation to that of a male, whose father is now a gambler and drunkard as opposed to the sweetheart. The House of the Rising Sun is a gambling den, still a house of ill repute but no longer a brothel. Snakefarm have chosen to keep to this version.
Starting off with a Cooder-“esque” slide guitar with echo reverb, Domino sings this song, at times in a measured manner, against a tight, controlled string bass line. This lends a detached ‘documentary’ style to the vocals. The track has a nice sleazy sound to it, with little touches of Spanish guitar and mariachi sounding horns.
This train that I ride –Starting with a processed effect that sounds like a Jew’s harp and against a hip-hop beat representing the train’s motion, this track has a good pace. It provides an acoustic backdrop to the song of long distance train travel and the anguish of separation. There is good use of effects here, creating an atmospheric sound.
Frankie and Johnny- A traditional American folk song, the story is of Frankie who finds her man, Johnny ‘playing around’, shoots him dead and is subsequently arrested.
Again this track starts with a sleazy guitar, sharp tight bongos with reverb applied on most of the instruments. And again, Domino sings in a detached narrative style appropriate to the sombre nature of the song.
Laredo-This is Snakefarm’s version of ‘The Streets of Laredo’; a song descended from a British folk song of the late 18th century, the same song that evolved into St James Infirmary. Here the song is about a dying cowboy shot through the chest in a gambling dispute. He asks the singer of the song to fetch him a cup of water. She does so but when she returns the cowboy has died.
Starting in a similar manner to ‘This Train That I Ride’, this track has a similar feel to the related song ‘St James, except here Domino actually sings with feeling, at times with vocal over-dubbing. This track has nice touches of a twangy ‘High Noon’ riff and wah-wah guitar. Again this is an eminently danceable version.
John Henry-Based on the American folk hero ‘John Henry’ a ‘steel driving man’, who has haughtily refused to accept that a modern steam-hammer can nail down the railroad tracks faster than he can. He accepts a challenge, beats the machine but dies shortly afterward from exhaustion. Allegedly based on truth it can also be seen as an example of the price of “hubris”.
Starting with a good driving rhythm this song has a good dance boogie beat, with a neat little guitar riff. An inter-verse theme is reminiscent of something the Bangles might have done. Background effects well capture the competition between the gasping John Henry and the hissing steam-hammer.
Black Girl-This folk song is also known as ‘In the Pines’. This track starts as most of the previous tracks have done so with a languorous banjo, but quickly descends into an over-produced mess of a confusing dance beat, before returning to the languorous banjo.
Tom Dooley-Another folk classic, this is a North Carolina folk song based on the murder in 1866 of a woman, Laura Foster, by Tom Dula. (Dula’s name was pronounced Dooley). The violent nature of the murder created much public interest at the time, to the extent that many spectators witnessed Dooley’s hanging.
Against a sonorous tolling bell and sung with tiresome reverb on voices as well as instruments, this track does have atmosphere; though effects are over used. Nice use of accordion and penny whistle sounding recorder.
Banks of the Ohio-A song about a young man, who having asked for his sweetheart’s hand in marriage, is refused by her mother on the grounds that the girl is too young. Misguided into thinking that they cannot be together in life, the man foolishly decides that no other man will marry his sweetheart, so he kills her by throwing her in waters of the Ohio river.
An up-tempo beat is used here, in contradiction to the doleful nature of the lyrics. Good snappy percussion and cello sounding bass, again create a dance version of a depressing song
Pretty Horses-Usually described and credited as a ‘Negro lullaby’, this song was performed by Joan Baez on her album ‘Baptism’. Despite being a lullaby there are distinctly dark and disturbing words being sung to sooth the baby to sleep. In the third verse we hear:
” Way down yonder in the meadow
There’s a poor little lamby
The birds and flies peckin’ out his eyes
As the poor little thing cries out mammy
The birds and flies peck out his eyes
As the poor little thing cries mammy”
This would more likely give the child nightmares! And perhaps this was intentional; this lullaby was likely to have been sung by a slave nanny to her master’s child, whilst her own child might have had to have been left by her to cry alone. Dark indeed.
A nicely distorted guitar and a tight drumming start provide an appropriately disturbing backing to the aforementioned, equally disturbing, lyrics. The nightmare theme is provided by a distortion effect occasionally applied to Domino’s vocals. The insidious nature of the troubling lyrics make this track the most difficult to listen to. No doubt this was the intended effect, so in that respect Snakefarm have been successful.
So how do we summarise ‘Songs From My Funeral’? Well, all the tracks are a refreshing take on the classic American folk ballads. Given the sombre nature of the material, Snakefarm’s arrangements are surprisingly up beat and a change from the traditional treatment given by past performers. Overall, however, the disc is far from perfect – the most obvious criticism being the lack of variety of the arrangements, leading to an unchanging and boring presentation. Clearly this is Snakefarm’s ‘sound’ but it can quickly become tiring. But like the tempo used on this disc, let’s end on an up beat and say that ‘Songs From My Funeral’ is a respectful tribute to America’s past and a legitimate reworking of these folk classics – it is even danceable.
Snakefarm ‘Songs From My Funeral’, 1999, RCA BMG Kneeling Elephant, RCA 07863 67687-2
Clearly produced and mixed for playing on MP3 players, this recording is tight, ‘in your face’, clear but is heavily compressed. None of the tracks have much dynamic range: a creeping contemporary fashion.
Source of Music reviewed…… Reviewer owned item
Equipment used: Sony CDP XB720E player, Quad 44 preamp (slightly modified), Quad 405 power amplifier (heavily modified), Quad 57 electrostatic speakers.
© Text Copyright 2010 Barry Hunt.
Album cover art work and photos © Copyright belongs to the original publishers.
With this his first review, I want to welcome Barry Hunt to Adventures in High Fidelity Audio. I look forward to Barry’s contributions to this title over the coming months.
Barry has many years of listening experience, has a broad taste in music and specialist knowledge of electronics both in terms of audio/hi-fi and in general. I think it fair to say that Barry’s interests in audio have more of a leaning to classic items of hi-fi but he still has an open mind to current equipment as well.
© Copyright Adventures in High Fidelity Audio 2010
NB No part or portion of this article may be reproduced or quoted without written permission.