La Strega and the Cunning Man in the Smoke (Latitudes Session)
Released: Tuesday 16 October 2012
Earlier in the year, Earth released the stunning Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II, completing one hell of a double album. When I saw the band performing in March at the Brudenell Social Club, Carlson mentioned he would be back in October with some solo material. This left me suitably intrigued: What would Carlson sound like without a full band? Would it be a return to the pure drone of Earth's early output? Would there be an accompanying record?
La Strega and the Cunning Man in the Smoke is a genuinely wonderful record and will no doubt surprise many of Carlson's followers. Who would have guessed? Covers of both The Kinks and PJ Harvey, a preoccupation with British folklore and fairies and, at the centre, a brilliant singer called Teresa Colamonaco. Carlson writes about some of these influences in his blog, mentioning a "long journey in Albion" and a fayre quest that's "supposed to end in penury and madness".
It's a pleasant surprise to find that someone whose music often brings to mind distinctly American scenery (deserts and barren landscapes) has such a genuine passion for all things British. Some of the fayre stuff is a little too new age for me but Carlson uses these influences to create something rather special.
The session opens with the title track and the only Dylan Carlson (Drcarlsonalbion if you prefer) original on the album. The track starts with a distinctly Carlson guitar part; slow and graceful with Carlson's atmospheric use of silence, drones and space. Colamonaco's spoken vocals come in and talk about "a soldier in the regiment" and "the morning twilight grey in Camden town". It's a brilliantly brooding piece of music and, while it retains some of Carlson's musical hallmarks, it also marks a foray into uncharted territory for the musician.
The just over 13 minutes long 'The Faery Round' is the session's only instrumental and, while it uses various drones and feedback effects that many will associate with Carlson's earlier output, it's more transparently beautiful than anything from those days. Next up, 'Renardine' is a traditional folk number rearranged by Carlson; this rendition inhabiting a similar space to This Mortal Coil's sublime version of 'Song to the Siren'. Colamonaco's voice is a revelation; confidently lying somewhere between the spectral beauty and vulnerability of Elizabeth Fraser and the pure sexuality and presence of PJ Harvey.
Next, the duo tackle The Kinks 'Wicked Annabella' (from the 'couldn't be more English' Village Green Preservation Society album). The Kinks' version was already fairly dark and atmospheric but Carlson and Colamonaco manage to expand on those dark, seductive qualities to stunning effect. The record has a distinctly nocturnal vibe and this is further emphasised by their haunting rendition of Richard Thompson's 'Night Comes In'. It's enough to send shivers up your spine as Colamonaco delivers the line "Lose my mind and dance forever".
They then turn their attentions to 'Little Woman' by obscure folk-rock types Mr Fox; stripping away the original's folk-tinged whistles and strings and revealing the bare bones of the composition. It's surprising and refreshing to hear Carlson strum relatively simple chords. The session ends with by far the most contemporary cover on the record; PJ Harvey's 'The Last Living Rose'. If I'm honest, Carlson and Colamonaco actually do the unthinkable and completely surpass the original.
The Latitudes Sessions released this year have been of an incredibly high standard but La Strega and the Cunning Man in the Smoke takes things to a whole new level. This release should hopefully surprise and delight fans of Dylan Carlson and should entice others to have a listen too. Carlson's recent Earth output has been brilliant but no-one could have predicted this. Absolutely essential.