Traditional ballads were haunted by death. Uncle Earl sings of murder, suicide, domestic abuse, lost children, and homeless orphans, with only a few love songs and the "fox on the town" who feeds his family the goose supper of their lives to break the dark mood. The two original songs are both strong, and the covers of songs by other known composers are all well chosen and add something to the originals. But the heart of Uncle Earl is traditional music sung with haunting power. Alternating as lead vocalist, Graves and Serrapere adopt a striking flat tone, intense but conversation-level, that's reminiscent of traditional ballad singers but not much like the sound either vocalist has used in performing her own material. Substantial stretches of each song, however, are sung in gorgeously precise harmonies.
The resulting contrast of quietly beautiful textures with the often graphically painful texts captures the essentially tragic spirit of traditional balladry in a way unlike anything I've heard in a long while. The Uncle Earl project may seem an unexpected move for two singer-songwriters whose individual careers are on the way up, and the unassuming sound doesn't grab a listener whose attention is superficial. Nevertheless, Uncle Earl's stark vision may be just the ticket for these times.
[Originally published in February, 2002.]
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