If you know me at this point, you might know that I love collaboration albums. Bell Witch and Aerial Ruin’s official collaboration was one of my favorite releases of last year, as was Thou and Emma Ruth Rundle’s series of joint releases, and anytime The Body releases a collaboration album with just about anyone, I buy it sight unseen. There’s something that is just so interesting about when two projects come together to make an end product that is more than the sum of their parts. Enter Crooked Mouth and Headstone Brigade and their aptly titled collaborative release Crooked Headstone.
Crooked Mouth (Ian Campbell, hailing from Duncan, British Columbia) and Headstone Brigade (Egan Budd, of Seattle, Washington) both have spent quite a while establishing themselves as some of the finest of the Pacific Northwest’s vibrant neofolk scene. Individually, they have each put in a lot of work to hone their unique sounds, with Budd’s accordion driven compositions and Campbell’s careful mix of traditional folk with ambient and ritual music from around the world both being unconventional but inventive stylistic choices that put them in a category by themselves. It makes sense, then, that the two should put their minds together to create some of the most creative neofolk in quite a while. Primarily based around voice, percussion and accordion, the duo mostly eschews the traditional guitar-centric approach in favor of something that embraces a wide variety of textures and tones. Lonesome ballads, rousing tales and forlorn sea shanties (which, I’m told, are all the rage right now among the youths) are just some of the storytelling methods employed by the duo, who split the songwriting credits pretty evenly down the middle. It truly is unlike much of the other neofolk I’ve gotten into recently, and it all stems from how well and seamlessly these two artists join up as one amalgamation.
Lyrically, the songs on Crooked Headstone range quite widely, from nautical themed adventures, bitter love songs, tales of restless disillusionment and anthemic manifestos of hope and adventure. “Old Shipwreck” is a great example of how the varying songwriting styles of Budd and Campbell come together to make something special. The song is driven by Budd’s accordion, which is a really refreshing take on neofolk trappings, and builds up an old-school sea shanty vibe with hooks and melodies that catch in you like barbs on a whaling spear. “Cedar Incense” falls back into a very naturalistic sense of wonder and mysticism, building on the drone and ambient influences from Campbell. “Ever Onward” is perhaps the duo’s strongest effort, a blistering proclamation against systems of oppression and a call to action for all those who stand against them, driven by Budd’s deft accordion, driving percussion, swells of cello and stark vocals. The last two tracks of the album are where things, unfortunately, fall a tiny bit flat, with these being more droning and repetitive. I definitely get the meditative headspace cultivated, and normally I wouldn’t mind this, but putting the two together, especially with the closer “High Tide” being over nine minutes, makes it hard to maintain focus to the end, which is a shame, because “High Tide” closes with a lot more energy than the ten minutes that came before it. Still, it’s not enough to sour the experience. Crooked Headstone is still a great, unique listening experience for anyone who wants something different from their neofolk.
Crooked Headstone is described as a “call for a radical optimism desperately lacking in our soulless age,” and that certainly seems apt. It’s not necessarily the most upbeat collection of songs, but it does a really great job of stirring the soul and awakening a sense of adventure. And as we work together towards what is hopefully the beginning of a new chapter with more physical and spiritual destinations to visit, let’s keep that sense of adventure going strong.