By: Dennis Cook
With some cult figures it's easy to understand their obscurity. There's something prickly or difficult about them that keeps folks at bay. But, there's lifelong fringe dwellers like Michael Hurley who're as welcome as a rainbow and damn near as beautiful, too. A singer-songwriter's singer-songwriter, Hurley has quietly carved out one of the dandiest, funniest, willfully warbled catalogs these United States have ever heard. While peers like John Prine and Guy Clark have garnered revered elder statesman status in recent years, Hurley just keeps on keepin' on, churning out nigh perfect songs and singing them with the simple, natural grace of the ocean slapping against the shore. And he's rarely been better than his Gnomonsong debut, Ancestral Swamp.
A kindred spirit to cosmic ramblers like Michael Nesmith and John Hartford, it's heartening that Hurley has found a home on a label curated by Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic (Vetiver), all artists that flirt with eccentricity but are closet populists at heart. The songs on Ancestral Swamp are like the paintings that adorn Hurley's album covers. There's a great deal of personal interpretation but there's always space for your own thing inside Hurley's worlds, which mingle real places with one's plucked from his imagination, mapping a brush stroke geography that colors in ancient blues, forlorn folk and hobo ballads. Hurley's gift is offering new music that feels like it's been kicking around the cosmos forever. Most cuts are driven by a single instrument underneath his captivating voice – a reverberant electric guitar, the slack skip of fretless banjo, the bony kilowatt clap of electric piano, restless finger-picked acoustic guitar, violin drunk on moonlight. What's clear in this arrangement is what a bloody great musician he is on top of everything else.
Lately, Hurley looks a bit like a benevolent, oversized, white haired house elf but in truth he's a sensei in disguise, and his compositional kung-fu on Ancestral Swamp is so subtle and nimble you'll be laid out before you know he's even landed a blow - a soft sacking that tenderizes body and mind through the judicious use of sound. Another great one by a true great recommended without reservation.
JamBase | Big Muddy
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