Folk Frowners Celebrate Life, Darkly


Performing as Gob Iron, Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt) and Anders Parker (Varnaline) recorded Death Songs for the Living in two days: 10 interpretations of classic folk songs, plus nine original “interludes,” i.e. short, instrumental, moonlit orchestrations of a-pickin’ and a-frownin’. The fully developed tunes are equally melancholy. Upon a quaint Southern Gothic foundation of twin acoustic guitars occasionally visited by piano, electric six-string, or the gob iron itself (British slang for harmonica), Farrar and Parker dust off mostly obscure mid-tempo standards. The duo contemporizes some of the lyrics (primarily to reflect Farrar’s politically liberal bent) but doesn’t dull their midnight luster. Most of the pieces still delicately, succinctly limn death’s myriad tendrils, only one of which, understand, is corporeal. There is betrayal (“Wayside Tavern”), a portrait of the American Dream inverted (“Silicosis Blues”), an indictment of government-subsidized drug addiction in the form of a confession (“Nicotine Blues”), a billet-doux to lost love (“East Virginia Blues”), and a forlorn ode to a dead child (“Little Girl and Dreadful Snake”). Though deadly serious and deadly earnest, however, Death Songs is all about life.