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From the Great American Songbook Archives - CHRISTIAN KIEFER


I tell you now: there are no epiphanies.

Category: From the Great American Songbook

‘Fork 8.5

Pitchfork ran their review of From the Great American Songbook today and gave it a staggering 8.5 (which in ‘Fork terms is really really great).

Dig it.  It’s a good record too.

Meanwhile, I’m fomenting a new music/art project, albeit somewhat hesitantly as I wonder if I’m biting off more than I can actually complete.  The Presidents project was fun and the end result is staggeringly beautiful, but it really took a lot out of me getting that thing done.  I’m thinking that I might not want to take on something like that again for a while.

Like I just told a friend on the phone: It’s a bit like giving birth; one has to forget the pain before one wants to birth more babies (or at least that’s what my wife tells me).

Sydney Morning Herald

Nice notice from The Sydney Morning Herald, June 16:

Drawing on traditional American folk music, from Stephen Foster to blues, from ragtime to working men’s songs (all conveniently now out of copyright), Tom Carter and Christian Kiefer have gone straight to the source. But how they’ve approached the songs is anything but straight and the results can be both strikingly evocative and at times skin-crawlingly disturbing. This is the art house refracting a vision long thought to have been fixed in our culture. (Aided too by odd and oddly entertaining liner notes.)

Carter and Kiefer’s version of Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer is something like the Necks playing Sonic Youth: sparse, built from almost nothing, in what seems like made-up-on-the-spot intersections before a squalling, pressing-on-the-bruise climax where for the first time the well-known piano figure emerges from within. By contrast, Camptown Races is reflective and pastoral while the high-country standard Will The Circle Be Unbroken is a slowly unwinding mix of sounds, which suggests squeezebox attached to a delay pedal and a collapsing church organ playing through a guitar amp.

Vocals appear periodically but the strength of this album is the sounds extracted from various instruments, sometimes natural, sometimes distorted and disguised, which put these songs of death, faith, murder and bastard entertainment in new contexts.


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

* * * 

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. 


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.

In Australia it is already tomorrow

I’ve been doing interviews with Australian radio stations all week for The Great American Songbook.  Pretty weird to think we live in a time where I can do a live, on-air interview via the phone for a radio station that is LITERALLY already in tomorrow.  Weird.

From the Great American Songbook

From the Great American SongbookYeow!  Last week’s mail revealed a nice big box from Australia filled to the brim with copies of my new collaboration with Tom Carter: From the Great American Songbook.  The packaging is just fantastic.  Here’s some stuff from the label’s website to whet your appetite for what it sounds like:

This second collaborative work from the pair is an expansive and ambitious recasting of American music now in the public domain. The influence of the songs collected here is long and widespread for their style and lyricism, forging a rich tradition and ever evolving history. With their interpretations, Carter and Kiefer have taken the songs that have seeped into their souls and extended upon them in such a way that brings something entirely new to their original ideas. It’s something that’s entirely theirs in spite of such source material, and with that, From The Great American Songbook brilliantly reveals a true hallmark of American music invention.

So, we have the infamous murder ballad Pretty Polly, the comic Camptown Races, the funeral Will The Circle Be Unbroken, the outlaw tale of Jesse James, the depression piece Hard Times Killin’ Floor Blues, the ragtime of The Entertainer and the doomed love trysts of Railroad Boy and The Coo Coo Bird. Carter and Kiefer have taken the spirit of these as a starting point for their spectral guitar improvisations, then fleshed them out with piano, percussion, bass and drums. In this thrillingly vast sonic terrain are moments of foreboding, tenderness, melancholy and gut-wrenching rawness.

Two of Kiefer’s longtime cohorts, Scott Leftridge and Chip Conrad played bass and drums respectively, while Califone’s Ben Massarella handled percussion.

Also contributing to From The Great American Songbook is a host of American musicians – including Tony Conrad, James Jackson Toth, Glenn Jones, and Sharron Krauss – with their reminiscences and insights into these songs with which they also found great personal resonance.

Christian Kiefer is a musician and songwriter with a varied and prolific history. His 2007 album Dogs & Donkeys featured the talents of Wilco’s Nils Cline, Low’s Alan and Mimi Sparhawk and The Band’s Garth Hudson. He is currently working on a project creating 43 songs for 43 American presidents and holds a PH.D in American Literature. Tom Carter is one half of Charalambides and similarly engages himself in many collaborations, including work with Thurston Moore, Bardo Pond and Robert Horton. From The Great American Songbook is his second release with Preservation, following on from 2007’s Monsters of Felt with Robert Horton.


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