Michael Hurley, the legendary rambler, cartoonist, and “outsider” folk singer, guitarist, is undertaking a second set of select U.S. tour dates in support of The Ancestral Swamp his 20th full length album and his label debut for Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic’s Gnomonsong label. Immediately preceding the last set of dates he taped segments for NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday” and “World CafÃ©” as well as APR’s “American Routes” program. The new album was primarily produced by Hurley, compiled at Mississippi Studios in Portland, OR, mixed by Jim Brunberg. It comes in just in the nick of time for the rabid Snockophile. A batch of new vittles and encores of some of his classic tunes, The Ancestral Swamp” bubbles with laid back ease and tremolodic goodness. The Ancestral Swamp is being released on Gnomonsong, distributed by Revolver USA.
Opening for Hurley will be, “ANS,” named after a Russian synthesizer that used images drawn on photo-optic glass discs to program the sound (the syntheszer itself was named after a Russian Composer named Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin.) The synthesizer was largely inspired by the phenomenon of “synaesthesia,” the experience of discrete senses as being one, such as seeing colours when musical notes are played), and a preoccupation of Scriabin’s.This is a duo comprising Meara O’Reilly, formerly of Gnomonsong recording artists Feathers and Brooke Sietinsons of Espers. Meara will be performing on an instrument she built called the “Duotine” (some people who tend to enjoy Dad humor, such as Kevin Barker, call it the “Jamelan,” which has also sort of stuck). This is roughly an electrified gamelan that uses silverware (forks and spoons) suspended by horsehair, which is then amplified (the horsehair allows the forks to resonate freely, and conducts this sound to a series of contact microphones that are mounted on a resonant wooden structure.) The forks are roughly tuned and then attenuated by corresponding tuning forks of specific frequencies, which are also struck and then mounted on the frame. Meara will be singing songs through a homemade plate reverb and occasionally playing an autoharp as well. Some sets with be song-based, others will be more ambient. Brooke will be performing a corresponding kaleidescope light show with a homemade projector. Synaesthesia is a founding principle of this duo’s performance. Both women are huge Hurley supporters to boot.
Most songs on The Ancestral Swamp have the simplest of arrangements: Hurley singing solo, accompanied by his guitar, Wurlizter organ, or fiddle. Tara Jane O’Neil helps lend a nice touch to “El Dorado”, and Snock calls upon frequent past accomplices Dave Reisch, and Louie Longmeyer for their graceful touch on sleepy winners like”New River Blues” and “Gamblin’ Charlie. Like all of Michael’s albums, once one sets the needle down, they are put in a certain peace and place. His voice and songs are unique, shuffling with characters and visions clear and wild. By The Ancestral Swamp , it seems Snock has left his front door open a bit wider than usual. If you lean in close, you can breathe in a little of the vapor rising off the water, and enjoy a tale or two. To date, this release has garnered some fulsome praise:
He calls his style “baroque blues,” but there’s nothing baroque about Michael Hurley’s minimal acoustic songs, which turn thoughts of the uncomplicated rural life – sign painting, clear water – into poignant, existential meditations. Ben Sisario/New York Times 11/16
Michael Hurley has been recording for over forty years. On his 1965 debut, First Songs, he was a young man carrying the foreboding mortality of a 75-year-old. Now in his mid- sixties, he tempers a knowing sense of death with sly winks that can only come with age, while youthful hijinks are sprayed across his songs like buckshot. Such is the consistency of Hurley’s vision that this set has songs written and recorded during the recent past half decade, flowing like one organic whole. The opener “Knockando,” immediately joins his pantheon of classics. The easy familiarity of his writing, singing and playign belies a highly controlled aesthetic The sturdy construction of a number such as “Light Green Fellow” shows him to be a more artistically barbed J.J. Cale, making it al the more puzzling why legions of troubadours and barely-voting-age garage bands don’t get on board and start covering these unassumingly perfect songs. David Greenberger/Harp November
With an off-kilter, sporadic yet oddly prolific career and cult following dating back to the mid-1960s, Michael Hurley was an outsider folk artist long before the likes of Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom were even the faintest of gleams in their parents’ eyes. These days, the alchemy of a fantastical or insular world view, back-to-the-land acoustic instrumentation, and idiosyncratic arrangements is called “freak folk” in hipster-speak. It’s only fitting, then, that after stints on both Folkways and Rounder Records – not to mention a handful of self-released albums – this wizened, genially weird old soul who goes by the name of “Snock” should land on the young Turk Banhart’s Gnomonsong label. Like most of his past work, Hurley’s 20th album is a relaxed, ramshackle affair that meanders along at its own shambling pace and under its own rickety power. Hurley’s homely, brambly voice – cracked, conversational, ancient – and the spare instrumentation of plucked acoustic guitars and banjo give standouts like “1st Precinct Blues” and “New River Blues” the spontaneous feel of a campfire session… Jonathan Perry/Boston Globe 10/7
Hurley’s debut album, First Songs, was recorded for Folkways Records in 1965 on the same reel-to-reel machine that taped Leadbelly’s Last Sessions. He had been “discovered” in ’64 by blues and jazz historian Frederick Ramsey III, and subsequently championed by his friend from teenage years Jesse Colin Young. Young released his second and third albums on the Youngbloods’ Warner Brothers imprint Raccoon in the early 70’s. In 1975, Hurley — who’d spent much of the prior decade living as a hobo, jumping and robbing trains and getting into trouble with the law — moved in with Peter Stampfel of The Holy Modal Rounders, thus beginning 15 years of fruitful if fitfull collaborations. His 1976 LP Have Moicy, a collaboration with the Unholy Modal Rounders and Jeffrey Frederick & The Clamtones, was named “the greatest folk album of the rock era” by the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau. Hurley went on to release three albums through the Rounder label in the late ’70’s and thereafter self-released consequent releases up until finding a comfy home with Gnomonsong.
Snock has personally test marketed The Ancestral Swamp and the results are in, “The Ancestral Swamp is actually a good party record , even though fraught with dirges of dying and death.”