Review: Old Earth – a low place at The Old Place (2012)

Despite the musical vibe of some of our more high-profile, bearded singer-songwriters, Wisconsin isn’t just a bleak and lonely land of secluded log cabins.  We can be a happy, interactive bunch— a beer, a brat and a Packers win can remedy a lot around here.   But when you record an album, as Old Earth did,  in the basement of your grandparent’s vacant home, knowingly on land once farmed by family ancestors (and prior—a settlement for the Menomonee Indian tribe), you’re not really trying to channel the mood of a summer outing on the shores of Lake Michigan.  You’re getting into Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Chris Porterfield (Field Report) territory and inevitably the word haunting is going to be used somewhere.  Porterfield and Old Earth main man Todd Umhoefer have been longtime off-and-on collaborators, and this time around Porterfield contributes his talents and serves as producer for a low place at The Old Place.  The result is a finished product that does not let down on Wisconsin’s growing musical tradition of reclusive, atmospheric and yes, haunting folk rock.

a low place at The Old Place is six songs delivered as a one track album that is just over 18-minutes long.  Now, that is a little different formatting-wise, and looking over Old Earth’s extensive bandcamp catalog, one can see the band is no stranger to some soul-searching musical experimentation.  However, a low place appears to be a somewhat polished, new direction for Old Earth.

Even with the 18-minute album length, a low place rolls out slowly, with gentle, yet building guitar looping over calm atmospheric distortion.  Simple piano work joins in, and the first few minutes of the album serve as a beautiful, tranquil intro.  As the strumming grows more intense on “Sea of Canes,” Umhoefer’s sparse lyrics begin, “Sometimes, I fear I hear it in her voice/ And sometimes it walks across the land.”

“less words” is the second song on the album and serves as the initial single off of a low place.  Porterfield’s influence is noticeably present on the track, and he joins in on vocals including the song’s harrowing chorus.  It’s a heavy, yearning tune, but also, surprisingly catchy.

“wait less, more strings” is maybe the most upbeat segment on the record with an almost bouncy folk loop and Tom Petty-esque crooning gorgeously layered over it.  “just another DUM blooze” is more crackled and broken, and reminiscent a little of The Rural Alberta Advantage.  The tune snaps into the speedy and passionate “In a room with the Tall Ones,” in which Umhoefer rolls off the poignant “There were snakes in your lungs and a fire on your tongue, I mistook it for sincere.”  It’s an exciting breakdown moment on the album and it would’ve been nice to have heard it flushed out more before the album closes into the whispers and quiet chants of “(still) more wrung in the Wrong?”

a low place at The Old Place is a solid and focused offering from Old Earth, and even at 18 minutes, it’s more complete and meaningful than many albums two or three times its length.  The dark, cold winter is just around the corner and a low place will settle in nicely as a solemn, throw-another-log-on-the-fire companion.

Old Earth
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Rating: 7.4/10

Thoughts?