Nice long review of From the Great American Songbook in Brainwashed:

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Written by Creaig Dunton   
Sunday, 01 June 2008
cover imageSurely having a higher concept than just to perform public domain songs that they wouldn’t have to pay royalties on, Tom Carter (Charalambides) and Christian Kiefer take a run through at some infamous and not so famous pieces of classic American folk that occasionally remain faithful directly to the mood and sound of the early 20th century, and at other times diverge wildly and brilliantly. 

Preservation

The ensemble consists of Carter on electric guitar and Kiefer on acoustic/resonator guitar, often aided by Kiefer’s associates Scott Leftridge on bass and Ben Massarella on percussion.  The opening tracks of the album, “The Coo-Coo Bird” and “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” tend to remain closer to what would normally be considered Americana folk, skeletal and fragmented with simple instrumentation.  The former especially channeled the same tonal vibe that I got from the first Dire Straits album (which is no insult, I’ve always loved that sparse simplicity and warmth of that album), while the latter’s slightly country twang is reminiscent of Earth’s recent work, but with a more classic sound and improvised, as opposed to conventional, percussion.

“Go Dig My Grave (Railroad Boy)” is the first that features vocals, which are processed and affected to give a more “authentic” sound, like the brittle wax cylinder recordings of field recorded Appalachian folk music that are still seeing release today.  That track makes for a notable dichotomy, because though the vocals are purposely treated to sound more dated, there is also a notably greater presence of studio processing and trickery on the actual instrumentations.

The duo’s take on the murder ballad “Pretty Polly” is one of the standout tracks here for its more drastic divergence from the formula that was established previously.  Clocking in at around 12 minutes, there is an odd balance of unconventional instrumentation added; both classic (a sawblade xylophone) and contemporaneous (an E-bow) that cast the piece in an entirely different light.  The vocals and overall instrumentation feel much more contemporary, rather than an historical look at music of the past.  Structurally, it does an excellent job of building all of the tension and darkness a murder ballad should have, culminating in a wonderfully chaotic passage near the end.

Perhaps the most drastic change from the original source material comes in the form of a unique take on “The Entertainer.”  It is a safe bet that even if people aren’t familiar with Scott Joplin’s 1902 ragtime classic by name, the piano melody that is synonymous with it will be undeniably familiar.  However, taken away from being the focus of the track, here it is instead supplanted by droning electric guitar noise and tense piano and drum duets. The ending of the track, which is completely unhinged and violent before segueing into the familiar piano melody, is one of the greatest moments in music I’ve heard this year.

From the Great American Songbook stays faithful to the classic source material that the songs are built upon yet expands and changes them to make it the work of Carter and Kiefer, and not a “covers” album or something as equally mundane.  Plus, I would be remiss for not commenting on the packaging, which is a lovely fold-out package with individual cards for each track in which various other artists comment on the tracks that were selected for inclusion here.