The Cart Before The Horse
Both Janet Bean and James Elkington of the folk duo The Horse’s Ha have a “bandography” so extensive and varied it is difficult to track the evolution of their friendship and collaboration. You’d expect two musicians who have been interconnected for so long would have an undeniably strong vocal chemistry. But that’s exactly what’s missing from their sophomore effort, Waterdrawn. On this follow-up to 2009’s Of The Cathmawr Yards, Elkington and Bean are joined by some of the Chicago scene’s finest musicians whose contributions do a lot to add spice to a partnership otherwise lacking in punch.
Bean and Elkington come out of the Chicago scene, though both are transplants: Bean from “just south of the Mason-Dixon line” and Elkington originally from the UK. Both began their careers plugged in and like many of the decade’s songwriters, have migrated toward the acoustic. The nineties saw Elkington as the lead singer of the alt-rock band The Zincs, and Beat the drummer of pop-rock power trio Eleventh Dream Day. The story goes that they met around 2000 and began a conversation about playing covers for money, which evolved into Elkington writing songs for himself and Bean to sing.
However, the guitar work is the star of Waterdrawn. “The Featured Rover” features sad and sparse finger-picking reminiscent of a Richard Thompson record. “A Stony Valentine” is a jaunting country rag. On the whole, the back-up tracks are tasteful and authentic, capably winding through various retro folk genres. The lyrics are full of puns, twists, and turns and quirkily tragic characters, and the whole project seems to be loosely inspired by the work of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
All of these traits would be attributes if there existed that one essential element: magic. Bean and Elkington seem distant from one another. Elkington’s vocals are consistently in the background and often Bean takes solo on the whole song. Bean’s crystal clear, Joni Mitchell-esque vibrato, though pretty, is so perfectly controlled it almost sounds like a tremolo stomp box with a sped knob. And vocally, she is always in the forefront. Elkington’s voice often gets buried in the mix. The last track, “Sea Shanty,” is an instrumental which, without the flat chemistry of Bean and Elkington’s duet vocals, finally allows the musicianship, contributed by cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassist Nick Macri and drummer Charles Rumback to shine through.