Graded on a Curve:
Devin Hoff,
Voices From the Empty Moor (Songs of Anne Briggs)

Bassist, composer, and arranger Devin Hoff has been on the scene for a couple decades now, working extensively as a collaborator in an assortment of styles and issuing a string of highly regarded solo bass recordings. His latest release delivers a twist, collecting nine interpretations of songs associated with the great British folk singer Anne Briggs, with seven of the pieces featuring guest contributors including singers Sharon Van Etten and Julia Holter, saxophonist Howard Wiley, and Dirty Three drummer Jim White. Transcending mere tribute, Voices From the Empty Moor (Songs of Anne Briggs) is out November 12 on sea foam green vinyl, compact disc and digital through Kill Rock Stars.

Although her discography is modestly sized, Anne Briggs is one of the essential figures in British folk, an interpreter of traditional songs and a writer of her own stuff who played guitar and bouzouki but predominately sang a cappella. Her first two recorded songs, “She Moves Through the Fair,” and “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme,” are amongst her most famous; they were cut live after Briggs, still a teenager, had been invited by Ewan MacColl to join Center 42, a touring cultural initiative spawned by the Trades Union Congress in Britain.

First heard on the two volumes released by the Transatlantic label documenting the Edinburgh Folk Festival where Briggs appeared with Center 42, the songs were compiled on the CD A Collection (1999) which also included her output for the Topic imprint, specifically the EP “The Hazards of Love” (1964), her contributions to the thematic collaborations The Iron Muse (A Panorama of Industrial Folk Song) (1963), and The Bird in the Bush (Traditional Erotic Songs) (1966), and her eponymous LP (1971).

Issued by Bo’Weavil in 2006, The Complete Topic Recordings features all of the above except the two Edinburgh tracks on double vinyl. Topic also brought out a new edition of “Hazards of Love” for Record Store Day in 2014 and repressed her first album in March of this year. A month later, Earth Recordings reissued  The Time Has Come, Briggs’ second LP, cut in 1971 for CBS. A third album, Sing a Song for You, was recorded in ‘73 with the band Ragged Robin, but it remained on the shelf until ’96 due to Briggs’ dissatisfaction with her vocals. It’s received a handful of vinyl reissues in the 21st century.

So, it should be clear that Briggs’ star hasn’t faded over time, even as (and surely in part because) she hasn’t recorded any material since that 1973 album, with one exception; a song sang in duet with Bert Jansch for a TV documentary in 1993. Helping to drive this sustained relevance home is the overt influence of her EP on The Decemberists’ rock opera The Hazards of Love, a connection that softens the surprising emergence of Hoff’s interpretive and collaborative endeavor.

Voices From the Empty Moor opens and closes with Hoff alone, his bass multi-tracked for his arrangement of “She Moves Through the Fair” at the start and played solo for a reading of “The Lowlands” at the end. The pieces share deeply bowed reverberations, and during “She Moves Through the Fair” in particular, Hoff’s avant-garde bona fides get reinforced (he’s played with ROVA Saxophone Quartet, Marc Ribot, Mary Halvorson, Jessica Pavone, and Ches Smith), all while retaining the essence of the traditional tune.

Hoff’s plucking of the strings throughout “Go Your Way” conjures the structure of that song as heard on Anne Briggs (it’s one of her original compositions), which is impressive given that on her version she accompanied herself on guitar. Highly distinct but ultimately no less melodic (and with some sweet overdubbed bowing), the track is further elevated by the typically gorgeous (but appropriately direct) vocalizing of Sharon Van Etten.

Hoff’s partners here have been well picked, with Julia Holter singing on “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” and Shannon Lay doing the honors on “Living By the Water.” In the former, Holter’s voice is as pretty as Van Etten’s and just as unadorned, with her approach true to the folk ideal but also somewhat punk, which is fitting, as Hoff’s bowing, initially a bit reminiscent of chamber classical, develops an atmosphere of dark tension as the track progresses.

“Living By the Water” is another of Briggs’ originals, again easily recognizable here yet strikingly different in execution (Briggs played bouzouki on her version), its intensity building through the multitracking of both the bass and Lay’s singing, which is a little bolder than Van Etten and Holter, reminding me at times of Mekon Sally Timms.

Hoff’s arrangement of “Maa Bonny Lad” gets smartly sequenced between the cuts with Holter and Lay, as Howard Wiley’s saxophone is in vivid contrast with the pieces that surround it. And yet, as the robust blowing intermingles with Hoff’s sizable bass threads, the music’s natural beauty and heft are in sync with the album’s overall trajectory and also with Briggs’ inspirational core.

There are other interesting overlaps, as Alejandro Farha plays oud on a track that combines “The Snow It Melts the Soonest” and “My Bonny Boy.” It’s a splendid blend of bowing, plucking and strumming that flows nicely into “Black Waterside,” where Emmitt Kelly sings and Hoff integrates an undercurrent of drone, and then into “Willie O’ Winsbury,” which offers some of the record’s most stunning playing even before Jim White’s drums enter the scheme. In some ways it strikes my ear as similar to Jansch’s Avocet.

“The Lowlands,” at less than half the length of Briggs’ original, registers as something of an epilogue here (notably, Briggs’ version opened her EP), though that’s not to suggest it’s unsatisfying. It merely underscores Hoff’s level of ambition for this project and his cognizance that Briggs’ artistry is supremely adaptable. Voices From the Empty Moor (Songs of Anne Briggs) is one of the unexpected delights of 2021. I only hope Briggs has the opportunity to hear it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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