Devin Hoff: Voices from the Empty Moor review – stellar lineup for the twists of Anne Briggs | Folk music


Motivated by Bikini Kill to pursue a musical career in the 1990s, bass player Devin Hoff has spent the past decade inspired by another radical artist, the folk singer and songwriter Anne Briggs. In the 60s and 70s, Briggs revived English, Scottish and Traveller songs and wrote her own lovely, twisted compositions before retiring to rural Scotland. Hoff is a long-term experimentalist and collaborator who has worked with Yoko Ono, Cibo Matto and Sharon Van Etten – the last of whom is one of several stellar guests on this unusual set of reimaginings of Briggs’s work.

Voices from the Empty Moor cover art
Voices from the Empty Moor cover art

Julia Holter and drummer Jim White appear too, but Hoff’s bass should command the most attention. It sets the scene majestically on opening track She Moved Through the Fair: layers of long, low, scraped notes creating shuddering, rumbling textures, suggesting a door to the underworld opening up (and perhaps the arrival of “the dead love” in Briggs’s version of the ballad). It’s similarly commanding on The Lowlands and Maa Bonny Lad (on which the saxophonist Howard Wiley provides fractious but fascinating accompaniment) but best on The Snow It Melts the Soonest/My Bonny Boy: simple and beautiful. Accompanied by oud player Alejandro Farha, Hoff unfurls the tunes in expansive new ways.

The guest vocalists offer more mixed results. Van Etten’s gorgeous voice weirdly doesn’t work on Go Your Way, appearing like over-refined window-dressing, and Emmett Kelly’s casual delivery on Black Waterside feels glib. Holter’s unearthly choirgirl vocals work better on Let No Man Steal Your Thyme (although they teeter on the edges of a Nuggets-style psych-folk anthology pastiche). Shannon Lay’s take on Living By the Water fares best, her voice unaffected and lovely, channelling Briggs’s direct, indomitable spirit.

Also out this month

The Memory Band’s Colours (Hungry Hill) is their sixth exploratory romp through the outer edges of traditional music. The Sweet Primroses and Albion’s Daughter are reinvented through respectful prisms of 70s jazz, while Nightwalk and Equinox are exquisite folk-tinted instrumentals. Jacken Elswyth’s Banjo With the Sound of its Own Making (Bandcamp) foregrounds the talents of the instrument’s most exciting young practitioners and makers: you hear the sounds of her sawing and shaping the wood alongside fantastic, intricate fingerpicking. Freedom to Roam’s The Rhythms of Migration (self-released) is also full of exciting potential, documenting flautist Eliza Marshall’s beautiful project to document migration’s utopian possibilities through music. Her impressive house band include harpist Catrin Finch and composer Kuljit Bhamra.

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