Release Date: Jun 9, 2009
Record label: Hidden Agenda
Genre(s): Indie, Rock, Folk
This is a very weird album, and an ultimately compelling one. The title and the group's name both connect to the Cathmawr Yards graveyard which figures in Dylan Thomas' short story The Horse's Ha, so one might assume that this band was a 21st century British folk revival group with art house intentions, but Horse's Ha hails from Chicago, IL, although there is nothing even remotely Midwestern about their sound. Horse's Ha, which is really Freakwater's Janet Bean and the Zincs' Jim Elkington with a postmodern jazz trio behind them, sure sounds British, a bit like Pentangle on cough syrup.
James Elkington has a voice like Leonard Cohen, a morose, ramshackle, and whiskey-stained voice that whispers to you through a host of folk-themed instrumentation, and Janet Bean is the complement to his downtrodden croon. The duo comprises the core of the Horse’s Ha, a Chicago chamber group whose debut record, Of the Cathmawr Yards, offers a compelling alternative to the self-absorbed guy/girl folk duo, which is all but ubiquitous on the coffeehouse circuit. Elkington’s vocals usually take the lead here, but the album’s saving grace is the various styles that match up to the duo’s harmonizing.
Jim Elkington and Janet Beveridge Bean have each made an adopted home of Chicago, and each has done time with the Windy City's venerable Thrill Jockey Records (Elkington with his Zincs, Bean with Freakwater, Eleventh Dream Day, and her Concertina Wire-abetted solo material), so we shouldn't be too surprised that they've paired for a project, nor that the Horse's Ha generally sounds like a jazz-inflected marriage of Freakwater's lonesome alt-country and the Zincs' skewed English folk stylings. What's more surprising is how mixed the results collected on debut offering Of the Cathmawr Yards-- recorded in large part by Icy Demons' Griffin "Blue Hawaii" Rodriguez-- can sometimes be. When Elkington, Bean, and their three Chicago hired guns (cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassist Nick Macri, and drummer Charles Rumback) are on, they're on, and when they're not, well, it can get cloying.
At a glance, this looks like the longed-for follow-up to Janet Bean’s excellent solo album Dragging Wonder Lake. It also features her singing folk-rooted material in front of a jazz-steeped combo, but this time Bean is not the leader. Jim Elkington, late of the Zincs, wrote most the material, and this record rises and falls according to the strength of his ideas.