Parlor James - Heartbeats per minute
Drove she ducklings through the water every morning just at nine Stubbed her toe on a splinter, fell into the foaming brine. Ruby lips above the water blowing bubbles soft and fine But, alas, I was no swimmer so I lost my Clementine. Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling, Clementine You are lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry Clementine. --Anonymous When read aloud, these lines from the 19th-century ballad "Clementine" convey horror; they describe the tragic death of a miner's daughter. And yet when heard in their usual contexts, as sung in nursery schools or in rowdy barrooms, they go in one ear and out the other. Stripped of its ability to move us, the over-familiar "Clementine", much like the death-chant "Ring Around The Rosey", is now a trifling ditty. Today it would be laughable for anyone to render it as anything but a light-hearted sing-along. Try telling that to Ryan Hedgecock and Amy Allison, who, better known as Parlor James, essay the tired ballad on their full-length debut Old Dreams (Sire). The duo's version of the song begins with a loop of rickety beats that invokes the clatter of a horse-drawn hearse. Not exactly in unison, and yet not quite in harmony, their eerie, resolute voices follow: "In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mine/Lived a miner, '49er, and his daughter Clementine." Hedgecock and Allison relate the details of the young girl's demise as if they were watching the event in slow motion. In the process, they not only restore the song's original meaning, they invest it with the shock of the new, enabling listeners to hear the dire tale as if for the first time. Enlisting the aid of producer-engineer Malcolm Burn (who has also worked with Chris Whitley, Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris), Hedgecock and Allison strive for the same effect on the rest of Old Dreams. Usually, that means swathing their Southern Gothic in a sea of samples and programmed beats. "The Pain I'm In", a Hedgecock-penned lament akin to the Stanley Brothers' "Rank Stranger", boasts a backing track as corrosive as any heard on Tricky's Maxinquaye; "Captain, Captain" and the title cut hint at what a Massive Attack remix of Fairport Convention's Liege And Lief might sound like. The duo overreaches about a third of the time; for the most part, though, the future-primitive cast with which they imbue Old Dreams presents aspects of the world according to Harry Smith in a radically different light. Some will undoubtedly view the new Parlor James LP as a subversion of the Appalachian ballad tradition. Others likely will dismiss it as dilettantism at its opportunistic worst, little more than a couple of late-thirtysomething singer-songwriters hoping to cash in on the next big thing that wasn't. Why else would the duo dress up their perfectly good songs, not to mention Allison's incandescent vocals, in polka dots and laser beams? It certainly couldn't be that they fancy electronic music. Or could it? "I had been drifting toward this," Hedgecock explains from his home in Brooklyn. "I started getting into ambient stuff after I moved to New York. In fact, when we did 'Snow Dove' for our first record [the 6-song EP Dreadful Sorry, released by Discovery in 1996], I heard the fiddle part as a loop. But I didn't have the technology to create what I heard. And I didn't know anybody who could do that stuff. "That was part of the reason I wanted to go down to New Orleans and talk to Malcolm; he was into this whole loop thing. So when we went back down there, we did a few tracks and it really started to work. Here was somebody who possessed the tools and who could show me how to do some of this stuff." Allison found the duo's electronica move to be more of an adjustment. "There were times when I was kind of bucking, going, 'Wait a minute. Oh my god, what are we doing,'" she admits, speaking by phone from her sister's house in New Orleans. "But Ryan and Malcolm were so into the idea -- and I had no objection to trying it -- so I just decided to go with it. I was so illiterate electronically that I thought it was gonna he hard. But it was a lot easier than I thought, and kind of exciting. Malcolm would just say, 'Let's just try this loop. Just play and sing over it.'" At times, adds Allison, the approach proved revelatory; she cites the gauzy "Don't Go Downtown" as an example. "Malcolm's arrangement brought out more about the song than I knew was there," she says. "It really heightened the emotion of it." Indeed, with Allison's shimmering soprano up in the mix, "Don't Go Downtown" sounds like the female counterpoint to the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby." Hedgecock agrees that this element of discovery was central to the making of Old Dreams. "Amy and I didn't go down to New Orleans with a band, or with anything prearranged," he explains. "We kept the whole thing loose and tried to keep inspiration real close to the surface. I find that if I have something worked out, then that's exactly what it's gonna be. But if I leave something rough, and I'm open to suggestions, oftentimes I'll come across things that are above and beyond what I would have done in the first place. And to me, that's where you find the magic." The magic of which Hedgecock speaks at times eludes the duo. "Turning Point" -- a song Tom Petty wrote for Hedgecock's '80s band, Lone Justice -- and "Face In The Leaves" plod along like so much '70s prog-rock. The same would be true of "Captain, Captain" if not for the grooveful drumming of Gloria McElrath, who regularly plays with Tricky. Old Dreams is most convincing when Parlor James tempers its experimentalism, when the beats and effects serve the songs and not vice versa. Besides the aforementioned "Clementine" and "Don't Go Downtown", the best examples of this are the Dusty Springfield-inspired "Everything And Nothing Too" and the pensive "Why Must it Be?" (both songs are Allison originals). Exhibiting the economy and pop smarts of her recordings with her other band, the Maudlins, these songs convey palpable emotion. It may be hard to hear it with fresh ears, but even Parlor James' drum-machine makeover of "This Misery", a Maudlins staple, works well in this context. (For those wondering about the status of the Maudlins, Allison reports that she and the band have lately been in the studio with ex-Blood Oranges guitarist Mark Spencer.) All of which is to say that while Parlor James recorded the entirety of Old Dreams with Burn, the project at times feels like two different records. Much of this has to do with the different musical sensibilities of the two principals, who began playing together as Parlor James in 1994. Hedgecock comes to country from a '70s FM-rock perspective; besides Led Zeppelin, he names the Grateful Dead as a major influence. "I was a big Deadhead when I was young," he explains. "I loved 'Space Jam.' I always loved the weirder aspects of the Dead. That's how I got into country music. Songs like 'Mama Tried', I loved that. And listening to them do the bluegrass stuff. Old And In The Way [a supergroup of sorts featuring Jerry Garcia, Peter Rowan, David Grisman and Vassar Clements] was one of my first introductions to quote-unquote real, hard-core bluegrass." By contrast, Allison, the daughter of jazz great Mose Allison, heard Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn while she was growing up in Mississippi, while also devouring the pop sounds of '60s AM radio. "When I was little," Allison says, "I loved all the girl group stuff, especially the Shangri-Las. So besides country, I was always pretty pop-oriented. I would listen to soul music and Motown way before I would listen to Led Zeppelin. It's funny; Ryan and I are really different. But the one thing we share in common is that we both really like country music" -- especially, she adds, hillbilly music of the darker variety. "I was kind of morbid when I was a kid," Allison continues. "It wasn't like I was morose or anything; I mean, I had a sense of humor. But I was drawn to scary, macabre stuff. And also sentimental stuff. When you look at really old country music, those are two big elements. I remember hearing 'Banks Of The Ohio', by the Blue Sky Boys, I think it was. I loved that, and I loved the harmonies. I loved how haunting it sounded." "Those songs are so part of our culture," Hedgecock enthuses. "But we've had this tendency not to pay that much attention to them -- you know, to what they're really saying. What Amy and I tried to do with 'Clementine' was to take a song that we've all listened to, that we've all heard a thousand times, and shed light on it so that people can hear it again. We had actually worked up a version of 'All The Pretty Horses' before we did 'Clementine'. And we also do a cool version of 'Listen To The Mockingbird'." When judiciously applied, the dots and loops on Old Dreams enable Parlor James to breathe new life into the mountain ballad tradition. And yet, as Hedgecock observes, the duo's close harmony singing, the thing that brought them together in the first place, is ultimately what makes their collaboration work. "When I first sang with Amy," he says. "I knew that it was something special and that I needed to pay attention to it. You're rarely blessed with finding two voices that blend in this weird way, and that cover each other in such a weird way. There are certain times when we both know that we're gonna hit a 'buzz' note. We both hit this one note at the same time and it just like buzzes in our foreheads." Even more than the album's beat-wise production, it's this buzz, sometimes enchanting, sometimes jarring, that infuses the best songs on Old Dreams with the shock of the new. ND contributing editor Bill Friskics-Warren is a Nashville-based freelancer who thinks that Garth Brooks should record Allidon's Cheaters World" and include it on his forthcoming box set.