Fern Knight, "Seven Years of Severed Limbs"
Lullabies and fairy tales can possess certain qualities that belie their gentle names, and might well inspire sleepless nights as opposed to sweet dreams. The former speak of helpless, cradle-bound babies falling to their certain doom, and anyone who has glanced through the original stories of the brothers Grimm knows that their name was a rather apt description of their stories´ conclusions. It´s amazing how a soothing voice or an impeccable melody can assuage the rather irksome feel of the gothic subject matter. On "Seven Years of Seven Limbs", Fern Knight (comprised of ex-Difference Engine members Margie Wienk and Mike Corcoran) has given us a collection of their own folktales that play with darker shades of storytelling imbued with a fairy tale like sense of wonder. From the outset of "She Who Was So Precious to You," we find a sparse arrangement of acoustic guitar and strings that are lit up by Wienk´s gorgeous vocals, like a shaft of sunlight peeking through a dark thicket of dead trees. The lyrics are foreboding and presents us with the first of many moments of grotesque beauty, "If the full moon won´t illuminate us / if the wine glass won´t even stay full / if the wolf won´t eliminate you / then I will." It is a series of images so vibrant, so enticingly conveyed that you´re pulled in; and yet they are also full of malice. This malevolence is undercut somewhat by a desolate feeling, as in "Chelyabinsk," which gives off a sense of great distance and overwhelming loss that has settled into fear and regret. In "Boxing Day", Wienk dons a red riding hood, declaring "I don´t think it´s okay to be going downhill with you" to whoever or whatever serves as the big bad wolf in her emotional dark forest. The song begins with the twang of a slide guitar, however over the course of its seven minutes, it loses the plot and begins to drift off of its structure finally dissolving into a wispy collection of church bells, alarm calls, and telephone ringers before segueing into the rain and street noise intro of "Mover Ghost." In the waning minutes of the disc, the metaphor and imagery of the wolves, the dark forests and watchful moons begins to fade away in favor of more literal expressions of the conflicts they embodied. "Make your record of it / You're such an easy target / mark those days off on your wall." The distance is now measured in time, not symbolized by some far off Russian outpost. 'Seven Years of Severed Limbs' closes with the stunningly beautiful "Dog Named Summer," loaded full with an impeccable melody and more soaring vocals that shape the scene of that golden yellow summer sun dipping below the rooftops, the heaviness of the heat and the method of your movements. Fern Knight draws a slow story, one that makes for an excellent tale that explores those winding forest paths and the things that lie hidden between the lines. - Michael Patrick Brady
"Seven Years Of Severed Limbs"
Released: 28 July 2003
There's been little respite from the stream of creaky, wood-and-water interpretations of rustic noir-folk lately, but Mergie Wienk's troupe stands out from the crowd. The secret is the way they lash the accessibility of The Bangles to a Brechtian vision of Peter And The Wolf; imagine Sparklehorse working his magic on Joni Mitchell, and Mitchell returning the favour. The results inhabit the same space as Kristin Hersh's Appalachian murder-ballads, only filtered through the ruminative perspective of a doomed Nick Drake and the veiled beauty of Nina Nastasia. It's 99% inspiration, the sound of shackles being loosed and imaginations allowed to roam; one day all music will be made this way.
If Low had grown up in the woody acres of the Rhode Island they might sound a bit like Fern Knight. But, like Low, through keeping a steady, requiem tempo throughout, Fern Knight has as many contemporaries as letters in its album title, which makes it hard for a band in the genre to make itself distinct from the other falling leaves.
The two main players in Fern Knight, Margie Wienk and Michael Corcoran, previously headed the similarly slowcore Difference Engine, which released two albums in the late 90s. Wienk, a bass and cello teacher also plays in the "experimental dark-pop" band The Eyesores. Seven Years of Severed Limbs is their debut as Fern Knight.
Accordion, cello, upright bass, violin, and lap steel all contribute to the sylvan tone of Seven Years of Severed Limbs. Vocalist Margie Wienk's understated whisperings perfectly suit the albums mood; one can picture her whispering these folk tales underneath a drunk moon and raging log fire in an open forest clearing. The chilling "Wolf I" brushes branches aside as it weaves through the thicket with its speedily picked acoustic guitar and intermittent blasts of electric while Wienk sings, "Jealous again / Seven years of severed limbs / Make the sun go down / Make it go down / As we're following the tracks / Of unavoidable wolf killers / ... / Left front paw / Drooling jaw..."
The cartoon-like cover art done by fellow Providence denizen, artist Jen Corace, shows a plump, raven haired little girl playing with a fey looking marionette from a tree branch beneath the full moon. The last few minutes of the lengthy instrumental "Sunday Afternoons," with its bouncing mallet percussion and twinkling ambience seems an attempt at instrumentally evoking the work. The other instrumental, "Theme," the basis for the mallet melody used in "Sunday Afternoons," plays it repeatedly, to great affect.
The only issue I have with Seven Years of Severed Limbs is that it carries few memorable melodies. In its press release, Fern Knight is compared to Nick Drake (because he's moody?), Cat Power (because of the vocal similarity?), Barbara Manning (vocal similarity again?), Red House Painters (because of the slowcore elements?), and Sigur Rós (because of some protracted instrumental passages and some long song lengths in general?). But these groups are all far more successful because they write/wrote catchy melodies amidst their moody atmospherics. Fern Knight simply plod along (especially on the three seven plus minute tracks which, as illustrative as they are of the sylvan northeast, could have been much more noteworthy with a tighter structure) seemingly adverse to a good hook, more interested in establishing an haunting aura than anything else.
But when they do connect, and are able to combine the two, atmosphere and hook, they do it wonderfully. As is such on "Kingdom" where a simple start and stop acoustic picking backs Wienk's lyrics of bitter anticipation, which are surprisingly hummable: "I can't wait to see your kingdom / Your spires toppling / Into each other / And into the ocean / You were too greedy I couldn't hold it." The same is true with "If I Could Write a Book About You," with its mournful cello and humble acoustic plucking. Wienk sounds absolutely disaffected with her subtle vocals and opaque lyrics: "They're laying in the limestone / With their tone-deaf hands / I've heard you did survive this / Won't you tell me how you did it / They forgot to throw the stone / They forgot the handfuls of dirt."
A rare treat, Seven Years of Severed Limbs was released through the minuscule German record label Normal, and is supposedly being distributed by Forced Exposure in the States, but neither site has the album listed. The wise move would have been to seek distribution or, better yet, a record deal with a label like Darla, or Kranky, with similar artists on the roster like Jessica Bailiff, Jon DeRosa, and My Morning Jacket, which seem more fitting for Fern Knight's lush forestscapes. Nonetheless, aficionados of the genre, your scouring will not be in vain.
Reviewed by: Gentry Boeckel
styles: folk-noir, folk pop
others: Low, Red House Painters, Cat Power, Nick Drake
reviewer: mr p
Far away from the hot spots that nurture acts like Lightning Bolt, Les Savy Fav, and Black Dice, a secluded sector of Rhode Island is reserved for quieter, less abrasive sounds. A part of town that ditches the masks and art theory textbooks for tan apparel and moccasins. This is where Fern Knight lives. With lush musical flourishes blanketing the acoustic guitars and crooning vocals, Margie Wienk and Michael Corcoran craft haunting, atmospheric pop songs. Listening to Seven Years of Severed Limbs (their debut release under the Fern Knight moniker) is like Low meeting Cat Power at a Red House Painters show, while show openers Barbara Manning and Julie Cruise cover a Nick Drake song. And surprisingly enough, it works. For one hour partitioned into eleven tracks, minor tones caress the introspective lyrics ever so slightly, as the album slowly drags itself toward the end-- softly, delicately, and
passionately. Unfortunately, many tracks sound alike, and they don't particularly benefit from their unusually extended lengths. Moreover, a band like Fern Knight is a dime a dozen. Very little sets them apart from the rest of the like-minded bands in the bucket, which is already overflowing into the gutters of washed-up rock. There's no doubt that Fern Knight is good at what they do, but there's no particularly good reason why you should listen to them instead of all the other bands that sound just like them, if only because it's the latest in the genre.
Fern Knight "Seven Years of Severed Limbs" (Normal) Fern Knight is Margie Wienk (of Eyesores, String Builder, the Iditarod, and her assistance of Matt Everett on their contribution to the last issue of Dream Magazine's CD, among many other things) writing, singing and playing a plethora of instruments; she is joined by Mike Corcoran (on guitar, backing vocals, violin and lap steel), Alec K. Redfearn (accordion on two tracks), and Joel Thibodeau (who drums on two tracks). Eleven songs in an hour; all with an understated eloquence, melodic ingenuity, and impeccable musicianship; the two instrumentals are among the best things here. Fern Knight make a distinctive personal sort of warm melancholic folk pop. Haunted and haunting, with a wonderfully crafted organic acoustic sound. Comparable to: Kristen Hersh, Greg Weeks, Barbara Manning, Pentangle, and Northern Picture Library.
Dream Magazine #4
FERN KNIGHT "Seven Years of Severed Limbs" (Normal) cd
Fern Knight is not a person's name as we initially thought, it is the moniker for this duo from Rhode Island whose hushed folk pop songs take a number of haunting instrumental twists, turns and detours into atmospheric soundscapes. Heavily reverbed and tremoloed guitars are interwoven with strummed and plucked acoustic guitar as deep somber strings and an occasional accordion wind their way around the unmistakable warm sound of a Fender Rhodes keyboard. So heart-baringly bittersweet and intimate, much like a cross between Julie Doiron and Mirah. Absolutely lovely!
The Providence, Rhode Island music scene is usually associated with Lightning Bolt, Ft. Thunder, and Load Records – crazy noise, high volumes, and general insanity. If all you read was the title of Fern Knight’s debut record, it would fit nicely in the Providence fold. Listen to the CD, and it’s a different story. Acoustic guitars, hushed vocals, accordion. Folk music? From Providence? Huh?
Formed by former Difference Engine members Margie Wienk and Mike Corcoran, Fern Knight is a bit different from the current batch of folk revivalists. Their songs are informed as much by ’90s indie-rock as Nick Drake, with the vocals as the point of deviation. Unlike Espers, Joanna Newsome, or Devendra Banhart whose vocals are all, in their unique ways, otherworldly, Wienk’s voice is very much earth-bound. Her choice of melodies and lyrics wouldn’t sound out of place on, say, the slower songs of an Unwound or Sleater-Kinney record. Perhaps it’s because her voice – though perfectly lovely – by and large doesn’t have the ominousness or purity of those other singers. She relies on the harmonies of indie-rock just a bit too much, with “If I Could Write a Book About You” as a noticeable exception. It’s an interesting change of pace, giving the album a terrestrial core around which to build.
"Folk" might almost be the wrong word for this. Yes, it uses much of folk’s instrumentation – acoustic guitar, cello, accordion, and lap steel among others – but the feel isn't the same. The instrumentals center around marimba and Rhodes piano, instruments with the wrong kind of mood. Their songs often have the propulsive drive, rhythmic consistency and guitar patterns of rock songs; and quite honestly, the record is just a bit too happy for the overcast world of folk. You couldn’t mistake it for, say, PJ Harvey, but it’s not that far off. And then there are the moments of cloud cover, where the guitars pick just so, where Wienk’s voice becomes an apparition, where the notes are allowed to float outside of time, where the puppeteer on the cover yanks our strings allowing the folk to reemerge. It is these sometimes subtle changes that make this a charming variant on what has already become a well-worn theme.
By Dan Ruccia
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