As rock conventions and clichés dictate, revisiting the hand-me-down songs of pre-WW2 blues, folk and ragtime is too often a cynical excuse for artists to ramp up rootsy credentials, cover material with less copyright-laden financial complications, plug gaps left by writer’s block and fulfil a few contractual obligations. Consequently, the prospect of hearing the umpteenth recorded renditions of “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” “St James Infirmary Blues,” “Stagger Lee,” “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor” and peer group brethren doesn’t exactly excite the anticipation brain cells. After all, what in the early-21st century can anyone else bring them? Not much all of course, but that’s perhaps the moot point. We’ve become too accustomed to modern artists forever attaching their own baggage and egos to such compositions, that to hear musical museum pieces just played for the sake of enjoyment is now the most refreshing way to let them breathe again. This is something that the two agile yet unpretentious veterans behind this new platter seem to have realised very well indeed.
The Angel’s Message To Me isn’t seemingly an album that Chris Brokaw and Geoff Farina needed to make. Both have fine pedigrees in more musically adventurous enterprises (Brokaw in Codeine, Come and Pullman to name only a few; Farina in Secret Stars, Karate and Glorytellers) and as artistically ambitious solo traders. Neither seems to suffer from creative stagnation or the pressure to prove themselves to pushy record companies or Americana addicts. Thus they have cut a collection that just seems to be about two friends passing through twelve old-timey songs and instrumentals with the glee of new discovery, as if they’d just learnt them off an old toothless but happy troubadour on a sun-kissed back porch.
Recorded entirely as a two-piece in apartment and home studios, with not much more than acoustic guitars and the twosome’s cohesively complementing tones, this is a record that unfurls with freshness and fluidity throughout. With Brokaw’s nifty finger-picking rubbing amicably against Farina’s more languid six-string phrasing, the duo’s intuitive interplay is the bedrock of the album’s appeal. No clearer is this heard than on a triumvirate of interspersed instrumentals; the sprightly Reverend Gary Davis-penned title-track, the laidback-horizontal honouring of Blind Arthur Blake’s “Guitar Chimes” and a meditative take on the traditional “Oh Death.”
But the vocal-led cuts aren’t far behind in the bucolic balminess and buoyancy stakes. Farina’s fragile voice takes on a warm earthiness here, which at times uncannily mirrors Brokaw’s naturally rougher larynx. The Farina-driven highpoints come via a serene interpretation of Leroy Carr’s “In The Evening,” an almost jazzy “St James Infirmary Blues” and a cannily uplifted twist on Richard M. Jones’s suicide note-like “Trouble In Mind.” Although Brokaw possesses more gravelly vocal cords, he doesn’t veer proceedings into unwanted darkness. In fact, he even turns the world-weary “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor” and oft-made-over murder ballad “Stagger Lee” into positively joyful – but crucially not cheesy – campfire strummers. When the two compadres share the mic for the delightfully swinging “That’ll Never Happen No More” – another Blind Arthur Blake number – the collection reaches its peak of harmonious unification.
Whilst The Angel’s Message To Me won’t save us from more boorish and over-earnest antique cover collections in future, it’s still a wholly pleasant and relaxing respite from the norm. Moreover, a sequel set – possibly with some of Farina and Brokaw’s own songs tossed into the mix – would be more than welcome.