Some of the darkest songs in the English and American songbooks are the ones that have been around the longest. Documentation and fascination with the macabre are essential to folk music tradition, the disaster song and the murder ballad each as much an act of journalism as songwriting—and as the cliche goes, if it bleeds, it leads. Years before Cannibal Corpse were finding new ways to describe cartoonishly violent scenes of horror, people were being poisoned or shot or stabbed or simply perishing in trainwrecks in song. Folk music, in other words, is metal as fuck.
But with each retelling of how Stagger Lee’s card game in a hail of bullets or the grisly events and ominous mystery of “In the Pines,” the details tend to shift and become retold in different stylized ways, whether viewed through a more political lens as Bob Dylan might or given a particularly vulgar rendition from Nick Cave. Because it isn’t literally journalism, there’s room to embellish or invent, to add new details or remove others, to give characters new perspectives or, perhaps just as crucially, remove the narrative from folk music in a stylistic sense, as The Body and Big|Brave have on their new collaborative album, Leaving None But Small Birds.
Neither The Body nor Big|Brave seem like obvious candidates for an album of traditional folk reinterpretations, certainly not one in which acoustic instruments play a major role in shaping the album’s sound. Each band has already released one full-length album this year on their own, The Body’s I’ve Seen All I Need to See a celebration of distortion at its most cacophonous and Big|Brave refining their post-metal minimalism on Vital. Which makes the new direction on Leaving None But Small Birds both a fascinating surprise and a welcome change from either band’s expected mode of operation, though they haven’t abandoned their respective aesthetics either. Through this exploration of songs in the public domain—songs of love, murder, heartbreak and dire labor conditions—the two bands are in fact carrying centuries’ old folk traditions forward in a form both exhilarating to the artists and the source material itself.
Which is to say it’s a folk album, and it isn’t. It’s definitely not a metal album in any traditional sense, either, and not simply because of the material that inspired it. The Body’s Chip King never shrieks throughout its 38 minutes, leaving Big|Brave’s Robin Wattie—whose vocal range is on stunningly full display throughout—to handle lead vocals. And when the presence of heavily distorted drones do appear, as they do in “Hard Times,” it’s more of an accent than the primary focus. Though the arrangements in these songs are layered and rich, they retain a sense of intimacy, as if meant to be performed by the light of a flame.
The Body and Big|Brave often take an approach that’s subtle yet powerful, following each song’s narrative with a musical arc both dynamic and hypnotic in its use of repetition. “Blackest Crow” seems to gradually grow in mass over the course of its nearly eight minutes, with a gothic violin lead slicing through a minimalist pulse worthy of Big|Brave’s own studio albums. “Once I Had a Sweetheart” carries a menacing blues strut, adding a churning weight to the song, while murder ballad “Polly Gosford“—heavily based on a song called “Pretty Polly”—is a shrieking noise rock dirge that lurches with menace from its opening notes. But the bleakest and most weirdly beautiful moment here is “Hard Times,” in which Wattie’s repetitions of “It’s hard times in this old mill” against a backdrop of shimmering guitar and swelling noise evoke the desperation of having one’s life held captive by capitalism.
The most radical reinterpretation comes in the closing track, “Babes in the Woods,” which for most of its duration is a dense and thrumming drone track—here’s where both The Body and Big|Brave most visibly draw a line back to their respective bodies of work. It’s not until the final minute that the track even begins to resemble the traditional tune, everything dropping out of the song save for Wattie’s vocal and a thumping beat: “They sobbed and they sighed and they bitterly cried/And the poor little things they laid down and died.” It’s the farthest distance from folk tradition and the closest converging into the same point, a concise and remarkable summary of Leaving Only Small Birds in Miniature. Maybe this isn’t technically a folk album, but The Body and Big|Brave trace its lineage back to the present while carrying on a tradition of compositions as living and changing things, finding revelatory reinvention in songs that long outlived their creators.
Label: Thrill Jockey
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.