Daniel Higgs' Ancestral Songs reviewed on Pitchfork today Jan. 24th.
[Holy Mountain; 2006]
Known equally for a staggering stage presence, his elegant tattoo art, and what he's spent so many years incanting, Daniel Higgs has produced brilliant, poetic rambles as the frontman/focalpoint of Baltimorean post-punk band Lungfish. A restless experimenter, Higgs has occasionally stepped outside the Lungfish framework: On Ancestral Songs, he labels himself "Interdimensional Song-Seamstress" and drops his most intriguing and powerful effort in years.
Building acoustic raga with guitar, voice, jaw harp, toy piano and banjo, Higgs conjures a vast nexus of hell, heaven, demons, angels, man, and all the overlaps in between. Imagine, if you can, the phrases and philosophies on the sides of Dr. Bronner's soap put to song by Roky Erickson and Henry Flynt.
Every bit a solo tent revival or one-on-one confession, the recording's spare, closed-in. The structure's reminiscent of David Thomas Broughton, but the ambience is less mournful, more celebratory. And, when he does get especially worked up, as in "O Come And Walk Along (for S.)", his chanted questionnaire ("Have you heard the lies about Christ?/ Have you heard the truth about Christ? It is a music evolving in time/ In the time of Christ, amen") reinscribes his hardcore roots.
Tracks move through various phases (in both senses) of Indian drone and lapped lap steel. He stuffs the corners with a wonderful pallet-- electrocuted bells, flange tunneling, tonal strums, electric noise, a toy-box Hendrix squall, warped ringing. Now and again a guitar turns into a sitar. Each psalm offers echoes.
Opener "Living in the Kingdom of Death" introduces the central themes/doctrine: The human body is something we'll eventually throw off ("I love these living rags I wear") and reality's a sort of "kingdom of dreams" where there's no clear-cut good or evil. For instance, the devil shows up in the "true" Christ and is also Christ's child bride. Sonically, the piece lays out a thread of tones that hums throughout the album. This has an obvious conceptual arc behind it-- the collection's title comes from this idea of inescapable connectivity: "A mirror as broad as your life is long/ Your reflection, an echo of an ancient song." That reflection and overlap occurs very much in the present: "My beloved, the daughter of the sea and the air/ The reflective sea beneath the invisible air/ The conjunction of everything is everywhere."
The chirpy field-recording "Thy Chosen Bride" is comparable, in parts, to Jewelled Antler or Will Oldham: Birds chirp and a banjo motors, and it lasts for more than 10 minutes. In its gentle duration, Higgs' playing is different than, say, Ben Chasny-- more traditional in some regards (hillbilly avant garde?), and he seems less interested in going places. Six-and-a-half minutes into "Thy Chosen", for instance, the music moves from finger picking to strums and singing. His voice channels Erickson (again): "The root of time taps the corpse of space." The birds hit various tones-- some are constant and some that seem to step forth and solo subtly in the background.
Albums that spend so much time on instrumental drone and ambient builds rarely nail the words like holy writ. Higgs could easily get consumed with one element-- he plays vast stretches of music as often as he sings-- but manages to wed the two threads. It's a fitting convergence considering his themes, and likewise, Ancestral Songs' shivers multiply after repeat listens-- each time he howls "amen" I want to get me to a church on time. But I guess part of Higgs' sermon is that you can never really be late.
-Brandon Stosuy, January 24, 2007