Talented folk musicians do not create a song; they create a ghost. There is an instinctive past to folk music (and no, we are not speaking of the current trend of freak folk) that can be directly involving to the willing listener. But most easily accessible American folk music seems to borrow only from its North American roots: plenty of folk singers have upright bass and the occasional banjo, but few can cross further into the barrier of time than that. Christian Kiefer and Sharron Kraus are not most American folk music. They manage to travel all the way into the medieval by just the first track (“Prelude”) of their collaboration, The Black Dove…while also retaining traces of the present, with songs such as the obviously John Cale-influenced “White Shroud.”
The Black Dove is like walking through a thick fog. The possibility that there is a person merely an arm’s length away poises the nervous body for action, yet the warm, grey atmosphere encourages the mind to float away. Tracks such as “On the Chase” build a semblance of that aching tension: Kraus’ gorgeous vocals pull towards restfulness while thumping bass, plucked banjo, and insistent shaker push the listener away from her lovestruck lyrics; the tug-of-war between words and music creating an unsettled feeling. Unlike “On the Chase,” however, “Letting Go, Holding On”‘s creepiness is unabashed: its mixture of medieval Europe and Americana combine with the sparseness around Kraus’ voice to form an imploring, strange track that will make (if you forgive the cliche) the hairs on the back of the listener’s neck stand up.
Kraus’s vocals are haunting, carrying the weight of ominous centuries every time she is allowed to be left alone with the microphone. What thankfully saves this album from crushing the listener under such an anxious, yet beautiful doom, are the tracks where Christian Kiefer sings. Kiefer’s voice carries far less tension: “A Snake & A Lion,” though still filled with vivid, dramatic lyrics, is soothing beneath his gentle force. This is not to say that Kiefer is the boy scout of the band; his longing vocals on “Cold Blue Room” build up slowly and draw out, as if he were singing from within a bad dream.
The Black Dove is a darkly poetic album, one which will engross the listener or repel them with its black rounded curves and upsetting eeriness. It is akin to being locked in the attic with a ghost: either you will pursue it, flashlight in shaking hand, or run to the nearest door hollering for a reprieve. One imagines Kiefer and Kraus would be equally happy either way.
Reviewed by Megan Giddings