Unheard-Of records are releasing 'Through the Hardship of the Seasons' as a final hurrah for Russell Hoke, an oddity of folk and country music who makes witty psychedelic folk songs with the bizarre lyrical content to go with them. If you go on his album covers alone, Hoke looks more likely to resemble outsider artist Daniel Johnston than your average crooner; he was most active twenty years ago, and originally had little interest in reaching an audience, making records so that he could play them back to himself, and often not bothering to actually release his pressed records. As it stands, he has only risen to prominence on the eve of his retirement from music altogether; Hoke has declared that 'Through the Hardship of Seasons' -- a new EP of original material, as well as a cover of delta blues standard "Longhaired Doney", popularised by R. L. Burnside -- is his final venture.
While 'Through the Hardship of Seasons' is ultimately a solo effort, containing four acoustic songs performed by Hoke, there are strands of a more full-bodied psychedelic approach. It's evident on "Driftwood", in which he leads a band with banjo and enlists backing vocals from collaborators Heidi Buchhorn and Gus Wanner. Overall, though, the record is a showcase of Hoke's sparser, more acoustic works and his sharp word play, which resembles the personal songwriting of indie pop artists like Stephin Merritt as much as anyone. Hoke's songwriting can often lose this sense of structure, though, and veer into the hypnotic folk sound you might expect of newer experimental artists like Richard Youngs or John Fahey. 'Through the Hardship of Seasons' ultimately stands as new and current material from an artist deemed to be lost in the past, and it's quite lucky Hoke even bothered to release it to the world.
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We've had loads of records in by this guy, he basically sends us boxes of his vinyl, old-skool fashion, asking us sweetly if we can try and sell them. That is then what we do as he's quite a loveable lad. A free-folking bluegrass-inspired songsmith, this latest hand-assembled offering is another obscure beauty.
One of the most endearing things I've ever heard on a piece of vinyl in all my days is the conclusion of the accomplished and delightful 'Driftwood'; a perky, rousing, rustic singalong where he suddenly chuckles quietly "my finger got caught!" - thus ending the song. As a nice contrast to this one semi-pro recording, the fluttering straight-to-tape uber-lo-fi charm of 'Nature's Ball' offers up the other side of Hoke's oeuvre. Proper crumpled campfire folk topped with his high, natural playfful voice; this is a charming tune nestling someplace between Woody Guthrie and Syd Barrett.
An R.L. Burnside cover over on the other side; 'Long Haired Doney' is equally engaging. Folk and bluegrass works best recorded like this as it echoes the grainy porch-lit classics of yesteryear. This is where the likes of Charlie Parr went a bit wrong, his early work had such an organic flow and intimate personality that was sheared away the minute modern studios came into the equation. To make music like this sound authentic all you need is a microphone and a tape recorder.
He saves the best for last. 'Bewiltered' is like a lost melancholy nugget from the late 60s. True Greenwich Village genius. I'm not a huge Bobby D fan but this track weighs in like Jim Sullivan meets Leonard Cohen's world-weary cynicism and indeed possesses the warm, personable flow of prime Dylan. Do yourself a favour and support a proper grassroots folk musician and his odd array of little private press treats. He's eccentric, genuine and talented. He also hand-scribes all his own centre labels in sharpie. I'd get cramp after about three.
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