Album Review

Martin Stephenson - Hell's Half Acre

Martin Stephenson - Hell's Half Acre

In recent years, Englishman Martin Stephenson has become something like a musical Civil War re-enactor. It's a destination one never would have predicted for him, based on his initial impression with the 1980s-vintage postpunk band the Daintees. But Stephenson's heart seems to be in Appalachia nowadays, especially the North Carolina mountain country that produced Doc Watson, Charlie Poole, and other 20th-century American roots masters. Hell's Half Acre is subtitled The SoundField Sessions, crediting the single SoundField microphone producer Dolph Ramseur used for recording most of these tracks on the porch of his house in Midland, North Carolina. It's billed as a field recording and the atmosphere is appealingly casual, although it does occasionally cross the line into self-indulgent. There are just a few too many had-to-be-there interludes of between-song chatter that should have been relegated to the cutting-room floor. That aside, Hell's Half Acre is easy to like, putting the listener right into the middle of a porch pickin' session with some stellar players (David Childers and Jim Hornsby among them). The occasional ambient bug, bird and passing car don't detract at all, especially when the players swing into a lovely and unexpected rendition of Santo & Johnny's dreamy instrumental "Sleepwalk". The record's humble, low-key nature finds summation in the chorus of "I Shall Not Be Moved": "I don't give a golly gosh darn."