Avant folk MVPs Fern Knight release third album late Spring

Fern Knight is the eponymous third full-length release from this fixture on North Philadelphia’s internationally renowned musical community. As the primary cover for Margaret Wienk’s singing and songwriting, this record fully unleashes her style of melding acoustic and electronic sounds, her careful orchestration alongside the improvisational strengths of the quartet, well-placed strings and crystalline vocals. Displaying her classical roots and psychedelic leanings, Fern Knight will be released into the world by the VHF label late Spring, 2008.

The new recording highlights the sonic cohesion of the quartet, featuring longtime member Jesse Sparhawk on harp and electric bass, Jim Ayre on Flying V and drums/percussion and noted Sun Ra scholar James Wolf on violin. The album was skillfully captured on 24-track analog tape by Greg Weeks at Hexham Head and mixed by Brian McTear at Miner Street Recordings. The calm surface of harp, cello and violin are juxtaposed against the perfectly timed distorted squalls of a Flying V with the grounding blanket of electric bass underneath. All throughout is a dark undercurrent of lyrical and vocal mystery. The overall effect is a lush and pastoral ode to all things living, a running theme that winds through the lyrics: “All is lost / and all will run / over graying ground / to the rays of the sun,” sings Wienk in the album’s closing track “Magpie Suite: Part III.” The spirit conveyed on Fern Knight  (vhf #110) is that of a beautiful green age in an apocalyptic landscape about to be laid to dust and its struggle to escape this end.

 Some of the songs depicting this green age on the album were written while in Ireland, “.We got stranded on one of the Aran Islands due to high seas. One day we amused ourselves by following the numerous and circuitous signs around the island pointing the way to the author Synge’s Chair, a landmark; after a few hours of circling we gave up, never finding it, hence the song ‘Synge’s Chair,’ which depicts our journey, the things we saw along the way and the conclusions we drew about the fate of said chair. I tried to stage it in a vaguely folkloric context and structured the song like a traditional folk tune with lots of verses telling a story.” (Wienk)

 Other songs were written as odes for stateside landscapes like bogs of the NJ Pine Barrens, while the album’s closing three tracks are an apocalyptic song cycle called “The Magpie Suite: Prelude, Part II, Part III.” The Prelude’s lyrics are taken from Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ and features exquisite overlapping male and female vocal lines sung by Wienk and Greg Weeks, setting the stage for what is to come. Part II is a lullaby for the green age being laid to dust, while Part III instills some hope that there will still be life, and that maybe the beauty exalted in the other songs on the album will survive human folly. The album’s closer is built around a Baroque-era ground bass line on the cello with a repeating vocal melody and harmony. The triumphant boys’ choir part (sung by Orion Rigel Dommisse and Ex Reverie’s Gillian Chadwick) swoops in from above to deliver the final statement.

 Born in Wisconsin and raised in upstate NY, Fern Knight’s guitarist/cellist/singer Margaret Wienk grew up in a household that cultivated literature and music, and where on a given day one could hear the sounds of Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” on cassette, a scratchy LP of Bob Dylan and someone practicing the piano. It was therefore no surprise when Margaret headed off to music school as a teen with her double bass, and it was there that she melded her love of poetry and music together in the form of songwriting: “I gravitate towards melancholic music, so I draw heavily from influences such as medieval and renaissance music, folk music from France and the British Isles and Indian classical music,” says Wienk of her songs. These influences are easy to discern on Fern Knight’s second full-length Music for Witches and Alchemists (vhf #101) on “Song for Ireland,” with its Eastern rhythmic underpinnings, and on Fern Knight,  “Silver Fox” and “Synge’s Chair” feature narrative verse and repeated refrains, as in traditional folk song structures.

 After moving to Philadelphia two years ago, Fern Knight has evolved into a solid touring and recording quartet, playing on local bills with legends like Vashti Bunyan, Gary Higgins and Joe Boyd and contemporaries Vetiver and White Magic. During this time Fern Knight was written and recorded. Driven by Wienk’s acoustic guitar, cello and crystal vocals, their cohesive sound rests upon the core quartet’s tasteful combination of acoustic and electronic instruments, providing the perfect vehicle for Wienk’s unique songwriting and string arrangements.

 Her other musical endeavors include co-writing and co-directing the alternate score to Czech new wave film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders with cohorts Greg Weeks and Brooke Sietinsons in The Valerie Project. Margaret also has been creating headpieces, neckwear and flask cozies for the merch table under the moniker Woodland Bop with Ex Reverie’s Gillian Chadwick. Margie has contributed cello and /or vocals to  recent recordings by Espers, Make A Rising, Orion Rigel Dommisse, Mountain Home, Ilya Monosov and Ex Reverie among others.

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Author: James McQuiston

Ph.D. in Political Science, Kent State University. I have been the editor at NeuFutur / neufutur.com since I was 15. Looking for new staff members all the time; email me if you are interested. Thanks!

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