by Chris Nickson

America’s rich song tradition makes today’s alternative pop scene sound pretty tame by comparison, reckons Conrad Praetzel, mastermind behind Clothesline Revival.  Using modern recording techniques, Clothesline has reverentially recreated magical moments on such songs as Almeda Riddle’s Down in Arkansas on their new disc Long Gone.   Dispatches from the archives, Chris Nickson.

 Think of Clothesline Revival as a mix of archaeologists and jewellers. The California-based collective unearths old musical gems and fixes them in sparkling new settings. On their new album, Long Gone, they’ve used old field recordings, framed by loops, beats, and a variety of instruments.

“I have really deep memories of listening to music as a child, of the wonder, power and magic, music can have,” explains leader Conrad Praetzel. “I’m always searching for a way to recreate that feeling, the experience where music is new. Adding the beats, loops and atmospheres to these old recordings was one way to try and get there. All the songs also have real roots instruments as well which I think helps bridge the gap, between folk and “electronic” and old and new.”

Clothlesline Revival is essentially Praetzel and several others, primarily multi-instrumentalist Robert Powell. The seed for it all was planted, curiously, by an album Praetzel and Powell recorded with Asian vocalist Sukhawat Ali Khan, a “sort of electro-organic east-western fusion, combining roots instruments, beats and atmospheres with traditional sufi style vocals.” From that, Praetzel “felt confident about the idea of combining beats and atmospheres with roots instrumentation and vocals. I felt if it worked with eastern roots music, why not western roots.” He’d already worked out an arrangement around Leadbelly’s Cow Cow Yicky Yicky Yea, which grew into the Revival’s debut, Of My Native Land. Instead of field recordings, however, Praetzel and Powell worked with local singers and musicians to offer completely different imaginings of old music.

Unlike its toe-in-the-water predecessor, Long Gone, Praetzel says, is “a concept album. I was also looking to find this place that’s not really in the present or the past, but still somehow felt real. I was hoping to bring out, in a new way, something like the musical qualities Greil Marcus talks about in his book Old Weird America. They're very strange and beautiful at the same time and make most of today’s “alternative music” sound pretty tame.”

The research alone proved to be an enormous task.
“I listened to every collection of field recordings I was able to locate, looking for a cappella vocals. I spent days and days doing that. There are several large collections you can listen to online at the American Folklife Center at Library of Congress. I sketched out about 20 songs and ended up with 13.”

Yet that was only the first part of the work. Each piece offered its own challenges.
“It was not just important to find musical changes that worked with the vocals,” Praetzel recounts. “Equally important was finding an emotional tie with the singer and song. Beats and atmospheres can play a real key role in this. They can totally change the feel of a song and they were often the first things I added to the voice.”

Drawing out the emotions at the heart of each song was equally vital, and that was where the imagination really kicked in.

“On Big Boy Can’t You Move ‘Em, the vocal was recorded long after the singer had worked on building the railroads, when he was toothless, retired and receiving a dollar a month from the county dole. You can hear a dreamy quality in his vocal, maybe a nostalgic memory of working with his old buddies but you can also hear the drive of this work song he once sang. So I tried to bring that contrast out in the song and move the listeners from the memory to the reality, of hard work. The first half is very atmospheric, using layers of some very time stretched samples. The beats, lap steel and harmonica don’t kick in until the “work part”, in the second half.”

It offers a complement to All You Rounders Better Lie Down,  which, Praetzel notes, was “actually recorded at around the same time and place as Big Boy. This vocalist though was only twenty and he was working in a turpentine camp. So he was singing from immediate experience. By some stroke of luck these vocals were not only in the same key but the same tempo as well, so I was able to weave moments of each song into the other.”

It’s a record of many magical, unexpected moments, like Almeda Riddle’s Down In Arkansas, where the atmospheric treatment turns the bizarre lyrics into something reminiscent of R.E.M. In fact, Praetzel says, “Down in Arkansas is actually a comical minstrel tune from the 19th century. The lyrics are really silly, “Now she’s cross-eyed that’s a fact, when she cries the tears roll down her back”. But Almeda Riddle sings it in a minor key like it’s dead serious, so much so you can easily miss the jokes. Anyway this allowed me allot of latitude of where to go with it. I could be playful and serious at the same time. Actually I thought more Neil Young in Down In Arkansas with the grunge guitar and the minor chord changes.”

On all the song, “the archival vocal recordings definitely controlled the direction the arrangements took. I wanted the vocals to be believable as part of the arrangements, not like they were samples just flown in. In most cases I used the entire vocal and left the song’s structure intact. Several songs were in free meter and I felt it was important to preserve that, which was a bit of a challenge.” But each track brought something fresh for him to consider, as with “the paradox I enjoyed is where you have children singing from an adult point of view or the other way around. In  Satisfied  it’s a group of young girls singing “I’ve never been satisfied” and in Gray Beard it’s sounds like a woman much too old to be singing the daughter’s words, “Oh but I won’t have him.””

The album closes, appropriately, with Music Has No End.  Praetzel put it there quite deliberately because “I loved the sentiment it expressed. In that song, Neil Morris, Jimmy Driftwood’s father, recalls his father saying “that music grew like a grapevine that is never pruned, that each year it put on a little bit more”. I’d like to think that Long Gone is just part of this year’s growth.”