The Winter & Winter catalog covers a wide swath, including traditional classical music, new music, avant-garde jazz, Uri Caine‘s crowd-pleasing hybrid projects … even the edgy complex funk of Steve Coleman and Cassandra Wilson, in their younger days on the old JMT label. But folk rock?
OK, I’m being a bit disingenuous. I’ve heard Hank Roberts‘ albums Little Motor People and Black Pastels, where a complex, jazzlike theme will suddenly give way to country-hoedown double-stops on cello or a downright catchy riff. I’m aware that his airy voice, while usable to ghostly effect on songs like “Black Pastels” or Tim Berne‘s “Betsy,” is also suitable for a gently sad fireside song.
This doesn’t imply Roberts isn’t “cool” enough to hang with the downtown NYC’ers. Check on the frenzy in the opening minute of “’30s Picnic,” the closing track on Little Motor People. Listen to the delicious pizzacatto pattering that crops up frequently on Green — as well as what sound like hammer-on notes, quickly flittering by, guitar-like but with the richer sound of cello wood.
The point is: Roerts isn’t afraid of a melody or even a catchy song. “Azul” opens the album with just Roberts: cello and wordless vocals, a softly drifting melody. It’s only later that Jim Black‘s drums intrude, gradually, and Marc Ducret‘s guitar eventually opens up a new direction with a menacing but not overbearing buzz.
Melody plays a bigger role in the suite “Bernie,” which includes the songlike “Prayer” and the track that’s named “Bernie” itself. Dedicated to Roberts’ mother, the song uses three(?) overdubbed cellos like a small choir, reflecting joy, mourning, longing, and memory.
Two outright songs — you know, lyrics and everything — grace the album, and other tracks like “In the ’60s” glide like rock instrumentals, a slow Neil Young vibe in the guitars (I think I’m hearing more than one, overdubbed) and amplified cello. “Cola People” is brisk and catchy; “Long Walk” is a slower pace, a mix of contentment, nostalgia, and warmth.
If you’re looking for something edgier, there’s the “Lenape Suite,” which shows a Native American inspiration in the menacing chanting of “The Departing Hunter’s Song” and the powerful gallop of “War Dance Song.” (The Lenape are a tribe that occupied what’s now New York and New Jersey.) It wraps up, surprisingly (unless you’ve read the back cover, I guess) with the climbing, soulful riff from “Jersey Devil,” an old tune from Roberts’ days with Miniature.