Anne Briggs emerged as one of the most distinctive singers in the British folk movement of the late 60s and early 70s, and remains a beloved figure from that era. Many of the songs she helped popularize have become standards. Now, bassist Devin Hoff has taken Briggs’ outside-the-box sensibility to the next level with his new album Voices From the Empty Moor: Songs of Anne Briggs, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a collection of starkly beautiful new arrangements for bass and vocals, solo bass, and slightly more expansive instrumentation. Much as the new versions are far beyond anything the guitar-strumming troubadours of the Britfolk revival ever envisioned, Hoff always leaves some or all of the familiar melody intact. If you love low-register music, or the source material, you have to hear this album.
He opens with She Moved Through the Fair, beginning with a diesel engine-like drone, then bowing a spacious, unadorned solo melody line, then bringing back the drone and building the sonic picture from there. It’s even more stark and ghostly than Briggs’ original.
Sharon van Etten sings Go Your Way with a spot-on, nuanced, airy woundedness as Hoff fills in the low end with chords and tersely dancing riffs. Julia Holter takes over vocals wistfully for Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, Hoff building stygian cello-metalish ambience with layers of loops.
Saxophonist Howard Wiley squalls, wafts and spins through Maa Bonny Lad, Hoff texturing the backdrop with keening harmonics, pitchblende resonance and a gracefully loping bassline. Living By the Water has plaintive, unadorned vocals by Shannon Lay, slinky bass melismatics and pulsing harmonies that could pass for an accordion. All that from a bass, damn.
Hoff makes a diptych out of The Snow It Melts the Soonest and My Bonny Boy, bowing the first with a slithery attack anchored by a low E. Alejandro Farha plays similarly purposeful, incisive oud on the latter. Hoff’s deft shift between bassline and multiple vocal harmony lines in Black Waterside, sung by Emmett Kelly, is a clinic in imagination and good taste.
The closest thing to a straight-up rock arrangement here is Willie O’ Winsbury, a gorgeously restrained, jangly, psychedelic instrumental version with Jim White on drums and Hoff handling guitars as well as bass. He closes solo with a brief and appropriately somber verse of The Lowlands.