When you know the rules, even the decisions you make to break them are made in relation to the rules. Sometimes this results in Jackson Pollock, but mostly it results in field homogenization that takes the mysterious x factor called “genius” to transcend. But if you never knew the rules to begin with, all bets are off–anything can happen.
Sfumato‘s These Things Between… is the folky embodiment of the latter phenomenon. Singer/songwriter Daithí Ó hÉignigh is “essentially a drummer” who decided to write and arrange a complex folk album. As a result, these 11 songs feature all sorts of sounds, rhythms and arrangements that I didn’t expect. I listened to this album for far longer than I usually do when writing a review, because it took a long time for me to figure out what was happening.
Because the homogenization of a field doesn’t just affect what musicians write, it affects how listeners hear. People are in love with Babel because it pulls off all the pop-folk moves perfectly; These Things Between… is a difficult listen for someone conditioned to hear music in that way. Even though the signifiers of folk are present (strummed acoustic guitar, pensive moods, emotive voice), what is a gospel choir doing in “Ostia”? “Mo ghrá” is in Gaelic? “Fly to Me” features a calliope-style organ; “Pound” accentuates unusual rhythms. This is a brain-expander, and goodness knows I need it after the musical candy that is Mumford and Sons, Avett Brothers and The Mountain Goats all releasing albums within weeks of each other.
After an eclectic start, the center of the album is a bit more standard. “The Past” incorporates bass guitar and organ drone in familiar patterns (Decemberists!), while “Song to Myself” shows off a wheezing saxophone in a style similar to Bon Iver’s Colin Stetson. By the end of the album, the unusual arrangements have returned: the title track is a heavily rhythmic tune that relies on conga drums, an unrecognizable instrument and Celtic-inspired strings. Still, the closer is solo acoustic track “I Was Hoping You Might…,” which reminded me of Damien Jurado in its starkness.
These Things Between… is perfectly titled, as its songs walk down the line between familiarity and otherness. There are detours to both sides, but overall it exists in a space that will challenge your conventional listening habits. If you’re into something a little outside your (and my) Mumfordy comfort zone, Sfumato should be one place to check out.