Parlor James – Heartbeats per minute
Drove she ducklings through the water every morning just at nine
Stubbed her toe on a splinter, fell into the foaming brine.
Ruby lips above the water blowing bubbles soft and fine
But, alas, I was no swimmer so I lost my Clementine.
Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling, Clementine
You are lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry Clementine.
When read aloud, these lines from the 19th-century ballad “Clementine” convey horror; they describe the tragic death of a miner’s daughter. And yet when heard in their usual contexts, as sung in nursery schools or in rowdy barrooms, they go in one ear and out the other. Stripped of its ability to move us, the over-familiar “Clementine”, much like the death-chant “Ring Around The Rosey”, is now a trifling ditty. Today it would be laughable for anyone to render it as anything but a light-hearted sing-along.
Try telling that to Ryan Hedgecock and Amy Allison, who, better known as Parlor James, essay the tired ballad on their full-length debut Old Dreams (Sire). The duo’s version of the song begins with a loop of rickety beats that invokes the clatter of a horse-drawn hearse. Not exactly in unison, and yet not quite in harmony, their eerie, resolute voices follow: “In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mine/Lived a miner, ’49er, and his daughter Clementine.” Hedgecock and Allison relate the details of the young girl’s demise as if they were watching the event in slow motion. In the process, they not only restore the song’s original meaning, they invest it with the shock of the new, enabling listeners to hear the dire tale as if for the first time.
Enlisting the aid of producer-engineer Malcolm Burn (who has also worked with Chris Whitley, Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris), Hedgecock and Allison strive for the same effect on the rest of Old Dreams. Usually, that means swathing their Southern Gothic in a sea of samples and programmed beats. “The Pain I’m In”, a Hedgecock-penned lament akin to the Stanley Brothers’ “Rank Stranger”, boasts a backing track as corrosive as any heard on Tricky’s Maxinquaye; “Captain, Captain” and the title cut hint at what a Massive Attack remix of Fairport Convention’s Liege And Lief might sound like. The duo overreaches about a third of the time; for the most part, though, the future-primitive cast with which they imbue Old Dreams presents aspects of the world according to Harry Smith in a radically different light.
Some will undoubtedly view the new Parlor James LP as a subversion of the Appalachian ballad tradition. Others likely will dismiss it as dilettantism at its opportunistic worst, little more than a couple of late-thirtysomething singer-songwriters hoping to cash in on the next big thing that wasn’t. Why else would the duo dress up their perfectly good songs, not to mention Allison’s incandescent vocals, in polka dots and laser beams? It certainly couldn’t be that they fancy electronic music. Or could it?
“I had been drifting toward this,” Hedgecock explains from his home in Brooklyn. “I started getting into ambient stuff after I moved to New York. In fact, when we did ‘Snow Dove’ for our first record [the 6-song EP Dreadful Sorry, released by Discovery in 1996], I heard the fiddle part as a loop. But I didn’t have the technology to create what I heard. And I didn’t know anybody who could do that stuff.
“That was part of the reason I wanted to go down to New Orleans and talk to Malcolm; he was into this whole loop thing. So when we went back down there, we did a few tracks and it really started to work. Here was somebody who possessed the tools and who could show me how to do some of this stuff.”
Allison found the duo’s electronica move to be more of an adjustment. “There were times when I was kind of bucking, going, ‘Wait a minute. Oh my god, what are we doing,'” she admits, speaking by phone from her sister’s house in New Orleans. “But Ryan and Malcolm were so into the idea — and I had no objection to trying it — so I just decided to go with it. I was so illiterate electronically that I thought it was gonna he hard. But it was a lot easier than I thought, and kind of exciting. Malcolm would just say, ‘Let’s just try this loop. Just play and sing over it.'”
At times, adds Allison, the approach proved revelatory; she cites the gauzy “Don’t Go Downtown” as an example. “Malcolm’s arrangement brought out more about the song than I knew was there,” she says. “It really heightened the emotion of it.” Indeed, with Allison’s shimmering soprano up in the mix, “Don’t Go Downtown” sounds like the female counterpoint to the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby.”
Hedgecock agrees that this element of discovery was central to the making of Old Dreams. “Amy and I didn’t go down to New Orleans with a band, or with anything prearranged,” he explains. “We kept the whole thing loose and tried to keep inspiration real close to the surface. I find that if I have something worked out, then that’s exactly what it’s gonna be. But if I leave something rough, and I’m open to suggestions, oftentimes I’ll come across things that are above and beyond what I would have done in the first place. And to me, that’s where you find the magic.”