Graded on a Curve:
The Other Years,
The Other Years

One can rest-assured that the reservoir of contemporary old-time artistry far exceeds the supply of new recordings, in part due to the participants valuing community, and live playing in particular, over establishing some sort of foothold on a pro career. Rather than watering things down or gussying them up for consumption, the best current wax in the old-time style manages to capture this emphasis on social music like a snapshot, and the self-titled debut from the Kentucky duo The Other Years is a fine example. Anna Krippenstapel and Heather Summers aren’t affectedly rustic, however. Theirs is a rich potency expressed largely through striking original songs, and it’s available now through No Quarter.

Some neo-old-timey stuff leans so heavily into authenticity that it begins to feel like theatrics; at the very least, an ear will find it extremely difficult if not impossible to misplace that it is young people playing music that’s significantly older than they are. Older than their grandparents, even. This quality isn’t absent on The Other Years, but by its end numerous moments have accumulated where the primacy of the old-time objective is augmented with creativity that’s considerably, and at a few points, arrestingly beautiful, and in a manner not at all discordant with the contemporary.

Along with guitar and vocals, Anna Krippenstapel bows the fiddle here, while Heather Summers plucks the banjo and adds guitar and vocals of her own. To hopefully offset the potential romanticizing of the “social music” idea (the term in this context spanning back to the middle of last century as a category of the Harry Smith-compiled Anthology of American Folk Music), Krippenstapel has prior recording experience, contributing to releases by fellow Louisville residents Joan Shelley (a labelmate and old friend of The Other Years) and Freakwater (she can be heard on their latest release Scheherazade).

Further breaking down the old-time mystique, Krippenstapel played violin in Vampire Squid, which by reports (there aren’t many) was an arty-metal band. What she and Summers achieve on this debut lands decidedly nearer to the moments in Freakwater that zero in on Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin; there’s also the timeless duo of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard to consider.

Opener “Red-Tailed Hawk” immediately establishes the combined richness of Krippenstapel’s Galax-worthy fiddling and Summers’ sturdy lead voice. Akin to a fair percentage of old-time song, it offers an air of Irishness, enough so that upon a cold listen my mistaken assumption was that it was a traditional piece. Ending abruptly, indeed just evaporating intriguingly away, it gives way to the gorgeous, more contempo-shaded banjo and harmony of “Adaline.”

“Sinks of Gandy” deftly mingles the old and the new, offering Summers’ lyrics of personal resonance (per a Stereogum article, it concerns frequent trips to West Virginia to visit a beau) with guitar strum, more harmony, a crisp fiddle solo, and elements of the traditional tune “Maysville” (Summers cites a recording from Kentuckian J.P. Freely as inspiration).

It extends the non-precious prettiness heard in the earlier track, with the voices underscoring a connection to the country roots-informed harmony of the Everly Brothers. From there, “Talkeetna” connects as unabashedly impacted by more recent developments in folk-based songwriting (without sounding like anybody in particular) as the banjo and fiddle sweetness retains ties to the old-time root; following, the exquisite a cappella “Fair Ellen” swings hard but smooth into the direction of the old (it’s the only fully traditional selection on the album).

At this early stage, “White Marble” is The Other Years’ apex, a magnificent unwinding of instrumental and emotional depth that again recalls Phil and Don (it’s worth noting that a recent archival issue of ’60s-era home recordings by Dickens and Gerrard opens with a version of “Bye Bye Love”) but with additional country-folk power. It’s downright stunning in its unexpected developments.

The splendid “Chapel on Pine Mountain” begins with over a minute of banjo and fiddle; excepting the four short vocal stanzas interspersed through the piece’s five minutes, it’s combined instrumental prowess that’s front and center, and while obviously skilled, the pair’s choice to emphasize the beauty of the tune (but with an undercurrent of toughness) over flashiness of technique (and this applies to the LP as a whole) leads to a late highlight. Like “Red-Tailed Hawk,” it feels like song as old as the hills Krippenstapel and Summers call home (but naturally so).

With “Lantern Song,” they return to a more up-to-date sensibility, one that would’ve perhaps found a home (or at least an audience) in the whole New Weird/ Freak Folk scene from awhile back. It’s not really fringy in comportment though (but the lyrics sure are interestingly vivid), so maybe it’s better described as in accord with the younger generation of player-singers documented in the ’60s by the Folkways label (Dickens and Gerrard swing back into the picture again).

Michael Hurley was one such Folkways artist (he debuted on the label with First Songs in ’63), so The Other Years’ splendid cover of “Wildegeeses,” while surprising, fits into this scheme without a hitch (the source is heard on Hurley’s ’09 Ida Con Snock, though it first appeared on a single in ’93). It serves as a nice conduit into the slow-build folk intensity of closer “Bridges.”

To swing back to the snapshot analogy above, this might give the impression that Krippenstapel and Summers just arrived and started doing their thing after the record button was pressed. To put a finer point on it, it’s kinda like Robert Frank showed up and took a series of pics inside a particularly well-lived in house (to borrow a cinematic term, one with spectacular mise-en-scène).

A dwelling doesn’t achieve such an atmosphere by accident, but it does get that way naturally. And so, kudos to producer Daniel Martin Moore and most of all (certainly) the two halves of The Other Years for the beautiful home that is this album.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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