The future is past and the past is our future. Our musical world might have progressed from acoustic instruments into electric guitars and multi-piece combos, punk, rap, and many others, but the traditional music preceding the modern music industry as we know it, “folk”, retains a subtle, but nonetheless deep, hold on the human subconscious of some. Much of our music today continues to be constructed around antique changes and subject matter that have been staples of music since humankind first wrote songs. Art must evolve to survive. One avenue of survival is in the radical reinvention of its presentation. Spitzer Space Telescope from the Chicago area Visual media artist and musician Dan MacDonald, the creative mastermind behind this project, hasn’t even recorded an “album” in any traditional sense. Instead, Colonies in the Wild Frontier exists in its fullest state as a smart phone app providing an immersive experience unlike no other in the form. Eight standard songs are accompanied by sheet music and an assortment of videos depicting alternative performances of some songs while also providing instructive clips like one where a historian talks about work songs. The high concept driving this project took four years for Macdonald to realize and this review can scarcely do justice to its scope or ambition.
The eight standard songs alone are worth fulsome praise. Anyone with more than a layman’s knowledge of traditional American folk music and its European influences will listen gobsmacked to Macdonald’s performances. Bob Dylan wrote about the folk songs he sang “…weren’t friendly or ripe with mellowness. They didn’t come gently to the shore.” The standard version of “99 Years Holler” is a hard-bitten work song with MacDonald’s voice as the guiding instrument. He’s an awe-inspiring vocalist with this material and delivers the narrative with technique and feeling that dramatizes the lyric, but there’s more. He uses his body as a physical instrument and the assortment of slaps and stomps providing a precise percussive backbone for his singing. MacDonald’s “Crew of the Undyin’” clearly culls its songwriting inspiration from the European tradition and the accent he cops for the vocal rings with authenticity. He passes on any unnecessary acoustic guitar pyrotechnics and, instead, focuses his playing around supporting his vocal and the lyric. “Corn Holler” revisits the style heard on the first track, but this time MacDonald marries his extraordinary approximation of the style with fluent work on the fiddle veering between the lyrical and jagged.
“In My Garden Grows a Mound” has stark, dire beauty. The lyrical imagery is exquisitely precise and MacDonald controls to show his vocal versatility once again affecting a believable brogue and stressing just the right amount of emotion throughout the song without ever once lapsing into bathos. His vocal sensitivity here is quite memorable. “Ballad of a Young Cursed Fool” is a showstopper. The grief driving MacDonald’s narrator is apocalyptic – he wants to bring the whole world down for robbing him of his love and lays out for the listener where he will go and what he will leave behind. In the song’s chilling final lines, MacDonald’s voice cries out a depiction of the narrator and his dead love rising to Heaven to be together forever. The cool, hypnotic beauty of the final standard song on Colonies in the Wild Frontier, “Five Oaks in a Ring”, is quite unlike any other standard performance on the release. His linguistic talents once again serve him well and this distinctly different foray in an “European” style ends this group of songs on a gentle note.
The upside on a work like this is tremendous. It has multi-faceted appeal, the performances are never clinical or mechanical, and Colonies in the Wild Frontier’s wide net of styles will catch countless listeners off guard with its overwhelming beauty. Dan MacDonald has written and assembled a major work that smashes preconceptions and moves the heart.