Even if you went into listening to Drcarlsonalbion‘s La Strega and the Cunning Man in the Smoke with no idea that it was Dylan Carlson of Earth behind it, you’d probably be tipped off within 10 seconds of the opening title-track. The long-running drone forebear’s style is so distinct, his sleepy minimalism so recognizable as it has long been at the core of Earth‘s resounding influence, that there’s just no getting away from it. It seems like whatever the context, Carlson sounds like himself.
And I guess it is the context that’s different, mostly. The surroundings. La Strega and the Cunning Man in the Smoke was recorded as a Latitudes session (see also releases by Blood and Time, Wino & Conny Ochs, The Entrance Band, Bardo Pond and many more), set to tape live in the Southern Studios in the UK — far enough away for the guitarist to be removed from the America in his Americana, if not the Americana itself. Joined by vocalist Teresa Colamonaco (also of London’s Screaming Tea Party) and fellow guitarist Jodie Cox, the seven component songs on the 42-minute full-length take on an English folk atmosphere, the opener pairing loops and feedback volume swells with Colamonaco‘s subdued, semi-spoken delivery while “Reynardine” carries a distinctly Gaelic air and accent.
All three players prove malleable. Colamonaco sings in an almost Scandinavian-sounding accent on The Kinks‘ “Wicked Annabella,” and Carlson‘s foreboding rumble there seems a far cry from the sweetened peaks of Richard Thompson‘s “Night Comes In.” The vocals give a sense of structure to Carlson‘s lines, as does Cox‘s own guitar, but even so, the 13:26 “The Faery Round,” the second track after “La Strega and the Cunning Man in the Smoke,” fills any instrumental or open-structure quota one might perceive for a Carlson release, his guitar offering tonal richness that’s nigh on orchestral as it paints images of the rolling English countryside later to be answered by the urbane impatience of the PJ Harvey cover, “Last Living Rose,” which closes.
After Earth‘s explorations of UK folk traditions on the two Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light albums, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that Carlson would look to push that inspiration further, and though it has its moments of indulgence — how could it not? — his first work under the Drcarlsonalbion moniker engages atmospherically with the calming effect that has been so prevalent in Earth‘s latter-day outings while also giving a different feel for what it is that he does with his guitar. Colamonaco‘s voice is a natural fit, and the penultimate “Little Woman” feels all the more intimate despite its two-guitar dynamic. There are parts of the album where one might miss some percussive aspect, but with a release like La Strega and the Cunning Man in the Smoke, the idea isn’t perfection or elaborateness of production, but rather the raw stuff of human songwriting and performance, and like other Latitudes sessions before it, this one certainly has that. It must be some room they record these things in.
As Earth‘s approach has grown increasingly complex with the additions of cello, horns, bass, etc. over the years, to hear him play as stripped down as he is with Drcarlsonalbion underscores how utterly vital he is to what Earth continues to do and how much he and the sound of that band are permanently intertwined, because just as one can’t hear Earth and not think of Dylan Carlson, one can’t hear Drcarlsonalbion and not think of Earth. That’s not to say the two don’t have distinct personalities between them — Colamonaco‘s presence here is enough to make that true and Cox‘s guitar complements in ways one just isn’t used to from recent Earth – just that the mark Carlson leaves on any of his outings is unmistakable and indelible, and that’s as true with La Strega and the Cunning Man in the Smoke as it has ever been.