The Wire Magazine: "weaves a melancholy spell....we are in deep"
Two years ago Brian Harnetty, an ex-student of composer Michael Finnissy, released American Winter, an emotional encounter between his own music and a trawl through the Appalachian Sound Archives of Berea College in Kentucky. Some of its eeriest moments occur off-camera, as it were. During the opening piece “The Night Is Quite Advancing”, an elderly woman is digging deep in her memory for words to a song she hasn’t sung since she was a girl. Suddenly a gulf opens up and we hear her shock: “I’ve lost track! That did something to me – scared me to death.” The final track, “We’ll Look For You If We Come Back”, captures an awkward moment between the archiving recordists and a toothless gent; is he asking for money, or maybe just trying to persuade them to keep him company a little longer? The process of collecting old songs is exposed as a strange, unpredictable human interaction, where subjects may tumble backwards into disturbing memories.
While working on American Winter, Harnetty says, he “kept hearing elements of Will Oldham’s voice in the old recordings”, and started corresponding with the singer. He hoped to persuade Oldham (aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) to sing on that record, but schedules did not permit the collaboration until now. Silent City is another powerful personal statement in which the distant past and present are interwoven. Harnetty juxtaposes archive recordings with his own piano, banjo and accordion, and this odd co-existence generates a new poetic context for the bygone voices. Working like a novelist, he has immersed himself in an archive of field recordings – slices of past lives – and now emerges to create a new text, breathing new life into old chunks of sound by radically recontextualising them.
Silent City is a more accessible album than its predecessor: Harnetty has reduced the surface complexity of his music, and raised the temperature by adding the warm tones of an electric piano. The core is still Harnetty’s own piano, accordion and harmonium, but he has assembled a small group to flesh things out: drums, trumpet, vibes and clarinet. Lyrics were pieced together from folk song fragments (pulled from Berea recordings) and phrases drawn from Harnetty’s memories of his father’s rural hometown.
The underlying concept is an amble around a small rural town. We seem to peer in at windows, each one from a different period of the past. Some of the archive elements recall the debut album – a track dissolves into the scrape of a foot-stamping folk fiddler, or a radio announcer from half a century ago stumbles while introducing the next live act. Harnetty’s piano doesn’t drive the music in a conventional manner, more as if it were a set of tuned bells, hanging notes around the room like decorations. “Well, There Are A Lot Of Stories” finds Harnetty’s father reminiscing about prison life, surrounded by suspended chords on clarinet and accordion, and propelled forwards by Sam Paxton’s drums. Alarmingly, Harnetty Senior used to play with the local prisoners as a schoolboy: “They were killers; and I was never afraid all the time I was there, hell, I could run faster than any of them.” Elsewhere, “Papa Made That Last Verse Up” dives headlong into a long-ago parlour full of cackling laughter and family versions of a comic song.
Amidst all of this, Oldham contributes three substantial vocal performances. Harnetty likes vocal and backing simply to share the same space, rather than neatly interlock, and Oldham’s voice is deployed here somewhat as the cobwebby archive tapes were on American Winter, creating a further slippage between the present and past. Oldham’s singing is fragile but firm, adding both mystery and focus to the album. “And Under The Winesap Tree” floats his vocal across Harnetty’s accompaniment as if the singer is dimly recalling the song from his youth. “Sleeping In The Driveway” is a love song from a timid admirer, watching a girl asleep in her car, hearing the radio quietly playing, not daring to approach. The high point is “Some Glad Day”, where Oldham dips a tad lower in his vocal range and comes up with a lovely evocation: “Brick-making prison; tobacco in the grass; some glad day we’ll all arrive.” The song, for all its otherworldly drift, works like a hymn, in which only the first line changes for each verse. This is the experimental end of Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy’s oeuvre: gentle and solemn, it recalls his Get On Jolly (2000) collaboration with Dirty Three member Mick Turner, where the lyrics were picked from devotional verses by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941).
Harnetty’s teacher Finnissy has long been developing his own take on folk music. In the late 1970s he wrote and performed a raucous, unsentimental piano suite called English Country-Tunes. For this two-fingers-aloft project the accent was firmly on the first syllable of the second word. For him the piece was “most simply, a totentanz – a dance of death, a lament, a wake – celebrating arcadia, the product of a long fantasy tradition of ‘rural innocence’... The remainder is made up of a series of responses to, meditations and variations upon, the ‘issue’ of folk-music, and how one integrates it now (with meaning and vitality) into ‘art-music’.” Well, putting quotes around all your terms is a start.
Finnissy’s bracing counterblast against English pastoralism was a way of wresting folk song back from the clammy hands of Vaughan Williams. Meanwhile Brian Harnetty creates a space to work with a wealth of American folk, parlour music, radio shows and roaming archivists. Silent City weaves a melancholy spell of chiming pianos and vibraphones, much aided by Paxton’s lowkey but eloquent drumming. By the closing “To Hear Still More” – backwards piano over purring harmonium bass – we are in deep, under the music’s hypnosis.
Paste Magazine: Artist of the Week, August 10, 2009
For Fans Of: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Steve Reich, Anthology of American Folk Music
In 2006, musician and sound artist Brian Harnetty had the opportunity to spend a few months rummaging through the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives in Kentucky. He treated it like a regular job, camping out in a basement corner from 9 to 5, immersing himself in old field recordings and radio broadcasts on cassettes, reel-to-reel tapes and ’78s. “There’s so much. It’s overwhelming,” says Harnetty, 36. “Sometimes I would just type a word [into the database], like the word ‘winter,’ and then come up with every single song that has the word ‘winter’ in it.” Other times, he says, “I would just walk into the archives and start randomly pulling tapes.”
Harnetty wasn't sure what he was looking for at the time, but eventually emerged with 30 to 40 hours of archive materials from which he's been making new music ever since. He's a collage artist of an unusual sort: His first album inspired by the Berea archives, American Winter (released by Atavistic Records in 2007), was chock-full of found sounds—the story of a 1928 outdoor funeral, a crackly-voiced woman singing a song called “Drunkard’s Dream,” another woman struggling to remember the words to a song— all interwoven with Harnetty’s airy, unobtrusive instrumentation, evoking a ghostly, eavesdropping experience.
For his new record, Silent City, Harnetty enlisted the help of Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie "Prince" Billy. “I kept hearing elements of his voice in the old recordings that I was listening to,” Harnetty says. The archival samples are pushed deeper on the new LP, buffering between Harnetty's loosely laconic instrumentals (lots of Rhodes and toy pianos, accordion, bells, clarinet) and three tracks with Oldham’s voice floating like gossamer over sleepy drones. Harnetty took melodic inspiration from songs found in the Berea collection, like the fiddle ditty that ends the first track, “The Night Is, And Lights Are.” The lyrics came together like a puzzle: He had had one list of words and phrases of his own creation, one list of text fragments from the Berea archive and one list of Oldham’s making, and Oldham pulled from each to create something cohesive. “It was pretty extraordinary to watch that happen in the studio,” Harnetty says. “It was a fascinating collaboration.”
The result is an other-worldly album that demands—and deserves—undivided attention in a darkened room with some good headphones. In that environment, you might just be transported to the mythological small town Harnetty imagined while recording. “I had this vision in my mind of being late at night, and you’re in an old dive bar, and it’s between being awake and being asleep,” he says. “You’re tired, but at the same time you’re observing—and it’s simple but pretty extraordinary, too.”
New Music Box: "brings gem recordings up out of the basement and into the light"
It's easy to imagine that composer Brian Harnetty salvaged most of his equipment from various attics, basements, and yard sales. A scan of the stage at a recent performance revealed three worn turntables and a beast of a Rhodes. Even the tape deck looked like it remembered the '80s.
As it turns out, it was an appropriately theatrical way set the scene, because in a sense the music itself is something of a rescue operation. Ever since he was a music fellow at the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives in Kentucky, Harnetty has been creating work that brings gem recordings from that collection up out of the basement and into the light. With a soft touch, he weaves these aural snapshots—a snippet of fiddle playing or the gravely voice of an elderly woman singing a half-remembered folk tune—with his own music. The elements feel loosely tied together, allowing the lines to float over and beside one another, slipping in and out of focus.
The archival recordings are rich documents, often capturing related memories or the nervous laugher of the participants along with the music. Harnetty sought these moments out. "The whole allure for me in those archives, listening to these things, was that these people weren't used to being in front of a microphone necessarily. So when they were being recorded, there was an awkwardness that I started to fall in love with," he explains. "In most commercial recordings, obviously, that's the part that gets cut out, so these in-between moments were really magical for me."
Pairing those moments with newly composed music became a rewarding balancing act as he looked to filter experimental ideas through older media, and older ideas through new technology. The pieces Harnetty has created with this material are showcased on two discs: American Winter (2007) and Silent City (2009), both on the Atavistic label. While the music on American Winter serves as a kind of frame for the samples, with Silent City Harnetty seems to have shifted the equation around a bit and used the archival audio as one strand in the braid. His own music takes a more central role, and he's also brought the striking vocals of Will Oldham in on several of the disc's tracks. Oldham, a highly respected songwriter from Kentucky, is a collaborative partner whose raw, Americana sensibilities perfectly suit this old world/new world material.
Despite the creative motivation Harnetty found in the archives, the resulting music isn't about stepping back into the past, but rather experiencing the past and the present simultaneously in a way that is instructive.
"I'm not too interested in sentimentalism or nostalgia; I don't want to be there. I like the idea of showing many layers of history," he says. And though the sounds are incredibly evocative, he's not so much telling you a story as helping you tell yourself one. He was inspired by his own childhood and family memories while making Silent City, but Harnetty acknowledges that each listener comes to the music with their own histories as well. Instead of fighting that, he welcomes a certain sense of ambiguity in the music and invites the audience to let the sounds take them where it may. "I can't control that," he concedes, "so I like to present the material and then try to get out of the way as much as possible."
In a way, creating this work was a kind of homecoming for Harnetty. Though he will never meet many of his collaborators, the sounds of Appalachia spoke to his own sense of personal history and helped him discover where his formal compositional training met his artistic motivations. Only then did his music began to find its own voice, he says. "I kept trying to be like I was in college, but that wasn't working. It wasn't until I started to pay attention to the things right in front of me, like literally in my room, or the landscape around me and the people around me, that the music became a lot better. It became a lot more personal, and it also became my own."
Mojo Magazine, UK: "Oldham unites with Ohio sound artist for bewitching folk collage"
Oldham and Harnetty began corresponding three years ago when Harnetty was working at the Berea College Sound Archives in Kentucky, weaving together Appalachian field recordings with accordion, piano, banjo and dulcimer to create a frayed patchwork delirium of songs and voices that became 2007’s American Winter. Hearing ghosts of Oldham’s voice in the old recordings, Harnetty suggested they work together. This is the result. Less unsettling and abstracted than American Winter, Silent City plays like a snow-dampened sleepwalk through the shadows of a rural American town, Oldham’s voice floating like a Salem sprite over the field recordings and naïve piano melodies, spinning together folk fragments and the words of Harnetty’s father. Not the next purchase for casual fans of Oldham’s solo work but certainly far more enchanting and adventurous than BPB’s last few solo efforts.
Magic RPM, France: "stretches out before our very eyes, to our great joy! 5/6 Stars."
Alongside his prolific musical output, Will Oldham has always had strong collaborative projects (Tortoise, Current 93, Red, Sage Francis, and so on). However, in this flourishing parallel discography, his duet albums have almost always proved to be the most exciting of all (Alasdair Roberts, Dawn McCarthy, David Pajo, Matt Sweeny, Mick Turner). So, it was with a touch of excitement when we discovered Silent City, the result of his surprise encounter with the American multi-instrumentalist and Brian Harnetty. A specialist performer of keyboard instruments of all kinds, this quiet resident of Columbus, Ohio, is also influenced by Steve Reich and local folk music. And if we had to provide comparable artists, Yann Tiersen (for music) and Dominique Petitgand (for the experimental procedure) share some similar traits.
For this release, it’s near Louisville that the conceptual artist Harnetty found in the voice of Bonnie "Prince" Billy the ideal vehicle to implement a new Appalachian sound. Essentially airy—one thinks of the recent film music adventures of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis—Silent City draws from a pool of Appalachian sounds coming from the archives of Berea College, Kentucky, inventing along the way a kind of rural drone. And if the conventional structures of songwriting (verse, chorus, etc.) fly apart here, so does the narrative itself—close examples include the collages of William Burroughs, as well as Bob Dylan’s lyrics—they are like abstract puzzles where each listener can find their own logic. And if there has been an often—and let’s face it, sometimes wrongly—continuously long string of praises for Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the strength of his contribution here (“Sleeping in the Driveway”, “And Under The Winesap Tree”, “Some Glad Day”) must be emphasized. Fans of Get on Jolly (2000) made with the Marquis De Tren will appreciate this, as it shares similar sounds. This disc sees atypical folk bells and keyboards take precedence over the guitar, and time stretches out before our eyes, to our great joy!
Rock Action Magazine, Italy: "one of those disks that cannot pass unnoticed. 8.5/10."
Silent City is one of those disks that cannot pass unnoticed, for the quality of musical thought and care poured into its unique sound. The twelve tracks provide an evocative atmosphere where the voice of Will Oldham is often primary and indispensable, with its dense beauty and depth of expression. Behind him move the muted colors of a battery of pianos that create tension, a large number of additional instruments (including some brass accents), and some samples taken from the American folk and gospel traditions (which do not hurt, either).
The patterns are always quiet. Silent City takes place at night, where the listener can quietly observe, carefully, without the haste of the day. The three last successfully end the disk: “Some Glad Day” seems to be an invitation to spiritual recollection, the instrumental “As Old As the Stars” feels like an improvisation inspired by shooting stars, and “To Hear Still More” a short piece borrowed from the world of Brian Eno.
The album finishes in forty elusive minutes: long enough to fall into an indelible, strong groove before we reach the new day, with its noise and its inevitable distractions.
Kronic Magazine, Italy:
Silent City is a unique and intimate disk. This is particularly so because of the ability of Brian Harnetty (a contemporary artist with a thousand faces) and Bonnie “Prince” Billy to tap into the sounds close our hearts—ranging from field recordings to soft electronics reminiscent of folk-country—sounds that evoke a deliberate melancholy. And, the voice of Will Oldham observes and recounts folk singing without being condescending to it.
It is intimate because a rich mixture of sounds dominates, and there is solitude in each of the individual parts (sound, singing, and performing): the exact approach that also appears in the two videos shot by Harnetty (“Sleeping in the Driveway”: fields and warehouses in Ohio, a cemetery where an older man cleans a headstone; and the companion video “Some Glad Day”: deserted places, village festivals, and glowing lights), where each image reflects this imaginative album.
It is therefore a language connected to silence, enhanced by Oldham, and based on an instrumental landscape that, even when hostile and uncompromising, is showing an insight into sound. A language that is angular and stretching, searching for a barren and earthy sound. Like the sound of a barren and empty street.
Blow-Up Magazine, Italy:
Harnetty is a sound artist and makes music for installations, and Will Oldham sings. The disk is largely instrumental, and Oldham sings on three of the twelve tracks, lending the power of his media name. But, know that these three songs are very beautiful precisely because they fit into a larger plot provided by the instrumental music (a cross between film music, traditional folk songs, and found sound). The singing and the words combined prevent mere background sound: they give the music power.
Overall (6/8 stars); the three songs (7/8 stars)
––Stefano I. Bianchi
From Beware's "You Can't Hurt Me Now" to his take on Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens' "One Day At A time" (thanks, Reid), there's been plenty Bonnie "Prince" Billy news as of late. Now, Ohio musician/artist Brian Harnetty's collaborated with Oldham on Silent City. The video for their spare, spacious "Sleeping In The Driveway" is quietly beautiful: A patient camera guides us through fields and the interior of a house, past silos, blues skies, fall leaves, and stop signs to an old man wandering St. Patrick's Cemetery, rural America. Press pause and you have yourself a postcard.
Prefix Magazine: "stimulating sneak peak into Brian Hanretty’s Silent City"
The video “Sleeping in the Driveway”, a collaboration between Ohia sound collagist Brian Harnetty and renowned Kentucky songwriter Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is thoroughly Midwestern. The shaky home movie footage is a patchwork of the Heartland; countryside fields, small town roads, churches, graveyards and silos.... The song itself is gorgeous—a refreshing change from Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s past experimental collaborations, such as those with Tortoise and the Tren Brothers. Perhaps “Sleeping in the Driveway” works so well because Oldham and Harnetty share a regional bond; although that doesn’t explain the brilliance of Oldham’s contribution to Current 93’s “Idumæa”. Whatever the reason, “Sleeping in the Driveway” is a stimulating sneak peak into Brian Hanretty’s Silent City, which will be released in August on Atavistic.
Autres Directions, France:
Not being content with a large solo discography, Bonnie “Prince” Billy is involved in various collaborations, not always successfully but sometimes to good effect, as was the case with the very good album with his friends Tortoise, The Brave And The Bold. This time, it should be noted that Silent City is primarily the work of Brian Harnetty who writes most of the texts and music. About Harnetty, we do not know much. The biography that accompanies the album released by French label Ruminance informs us that this artist and native of Ohio works with found sound and his music contains a strong political and social discourse. Indeed, many compositions of Harnetty make use of "field recordings" from the sound archives of The Berea College in Appalachia: sound clips recorded in rural areas, where we hear echoes from the past. But far from being reduced to a sociological or ethnographic project (as interesting and relevant as it may be), Silent City proves fascinating because of its additional instrumental parts, built around a violin, trumpet, several vintage keyboards and very discreet rhythms. This is shown in the beautiful song “The Top Hat”, artfully arranged, delicately fringed with piano, brass and inventive drums—it is a beautiful piece of folktronica. Or, in the song “Silent City”, which is distantly reminiscent of the band Berg Sans Nipple. Additionally, there are brief interludes that capture a form of life evoking moments in a distant America we will never know. Bonnie "Prince" Billy illuminates the songs he sings on (“Sleeping In The Driveway” or “And Under the Winesap Tree”) with restraint and precision, and he enjoys shining light into new corners of the Silent City. Another collaboration benefiting from the contribution of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Silent City is savored like a good book by John Fante.
Pop Review Express Blog, France: "sumptuously arranged, and captivating to the end. 8.5/10."
Here is a disk that is stark and meditative. The music is filled with rural melancholia, under the high patronage of Will Oldham / Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. And even if he sings on only three songs on this album, it recalls the atmosphere of old albums of Palace or Palace Borthers, or the venerable solo album by Mark Hollis, but also the work of Nick Cave & Warren Ellis gathered in their great double CD Lunar White.
Filled with sound environments akin to an intimate western, Silent City captures this mood in the very first song with the use of a ghostly saloon piano and the scattered notes of accordion, banjo, field recordings, and archives. The album also contains the sounds of banjo, trumpet, or drums. All of these are sumptuously arranged, and are captivating to the end.
Komakino magazine, Italy: "I dare you to listen to this record alone in your room"
Needless to say, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy is an amazing musician and songwriter, and his vocals can tear you apart. But, shit, I cannot but write this here too, because I'm listening, over and over, to the new record Silent City, made with Brian Harnetty. It's like you're sitting all night long in a small bar—it's not that crowded, but you're not sure it's still 2009 (Sinclair Serenade); you're drinking and sleepy, listening to someone tell an old story ("Well, There Are A Lot Of Stories"). Outside the bar it's autumn: a deep black, silent night. You have the sensation you're living in a small, small town, an American rural one—the old toothless man sitting next to you actually is gently playing a banjo (It's Different Now); then you hear a piano, an accordion, some dreamy glockenspiel calling, humming drums…and it is like if Yann Tiersen's pastoral magic were drowned in a glass of whiskey, where the folk sounds are next to silence, next to death (Some Glad Day). Hmm, no, I guess you won't have anything to laugh about tonight. It's about the inescapable loneliness, coming soon or later in your life, (As Old As The Stars); loneliness of aging, of living (Sleeping In The Driveway), of 'being' (To Hear Still More)…I mean, this is a dangerous record. It might actually make you stop and think. Distributed in Europe by Ruminance, and in the USA by Atavistic, even if you're made of stone I dare you to listen to this record alone in your room.
Aquarius records: "haunting and captivating"
The last Brian Harnetty record was a sleeper hit around here, fusing sampled bits of Appalachia and fragments of oral histories with dark brooding collaged soundscapes, the results were haunting and captivating, the two sounds working surprisingly well together, creating a sort of ghostly old world folk, the cracked and weathered voices wrapped in warm whirs and spectral ambience. For his latest record....Harnetty has assembled a conventional band and composed a set of gorgeous and dark chamber rock / dark jazz vignettes, utilizing piano, accordion, clarinet, trumpet, violin, drums, bells, vibes as well as vocals on a few tracks courtesy of Mr. Will Oldham aka Bonnie Prince Billy....
Harnetty hasn't abandoned his use of the strange old time samples either, they pop up throughout the record, a little burst of old timey Appalachia, a cute introduction from the bandstand of some dance, wild sawing fiddles, it sounds like a strange fit, but it weirdly sort of works. The record opens with a haunting ballad, all softly reverbed piano, and droning strings, shuffling drums, super moody and mysterious, when all of a sudden, right at the end, some old timey fiddle music fades while the song proper fades out, and the player says a few words and then we're already into the next song, another dark brooding drift. The whole record is pretty haunting and moody, a little Dirty 3, a little Max Richter, quite lovely, with the various old timey samples just adding a little bit of odd mystery.
The 412, Pittsburgh: Featured Album
There are samples, and then there are samples. While a great many artists from the Beastie Boys to Girl Talk have gained notoriety thanks to their inventive sampling techniques, artist/musician Brian Harnetty takes the concept to an entirely different front. In Silent City, his second release on Atavistic Records, Harnetty continues his trend of sampling everything from field recordings to scratchy old vinyl records to archived spoken-word tracks; basically, anything that could possibly be reworked, retooled, chopped, or mashed up into a song. And if that vein of inventiveness isn’t enough to entice you, then consider that the vocals on several tracks are provided by none other than Wil Oldham (AKA Americana singer/songwriter Bonnie “Prince” Billy), whose delicate voice fits the “lo-fi electronica” approach of Harnetty’s work perfectly. This is one of the few albums out there that should appeal to both the folksy-oriented hipster crowd and to those looking for a more challenging listen.