By Christopher Scapelliti
The voices are of familiar, contemporary musicians: Richard Thompson, Marshall Crenshaw, Rosanne Cash, and Loudon Wainwright III.
But they are stark and spectral, as if snatched from the ether several decades after they were first uttered. There is an occasional click, the hash of signal distortion, and the steady low murmur of a turntable motor. Over it all looms a sense of atmosphere — of air that is stirring and alive with activity, urgency, and immediacy.
This is the sound of intimacy at 78 revolutions per minute, brought to you courtesy of The 78 Project. Using a vintage direct-to-lacquer-disc recorder, a microphone, and — fingers crossed — one take, The 78 Project records contemporary musicians as they perform songs from the early 20th century.
Until now, the Project’s efforts have been available only as a video web series, but February 4 will bring the release of its first audio collection. Titled The 78 Project Volume 1, the album is available as a limited-edition 12-inch 33-rpm vinyl disc (with digital download) featuring 13 songs recorded in and around New York City between August 2011 and May 2012. In addition to Thompson, Crenshaw, Cash, and Wainwright, the album features Joe Henry and Lisa Hannigan, folksinger Valerie June, alt-folk group Vandaveer, and numerous other artists whose music moves through the rich heritage of American folk, blues, and gospel.
The Project is the work of director/editor/producer Alex Steyermark and writer/producer Lavinia Jones Wright. The two were inspired by the legacy of John and Alan Lomax, the father-and-son ethnomusicologists who in the Thirties toured the American South with a direct-to-disc audio recorder in the back of their Ford sedan to make field recordings of African-American folksongs. The Lomaxes visited farms and prisons, where they recorded unknown performers — including a 12-string-guitar player by the name of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter — and preserved a vanishing treasure of American musical culture.
Following in the Lomaxes’ footsteps, Steyermark and Wright used a 1930s Presto Model “K8” Recorder (weighing in at a “mere” 50 pounds) and a vintage microphone to record each performer in the NYC environment of the artist's choice. Among the unusual locations selected were Midtown’s Roger Smith Hotel (Thompson’s “The Coo Coo Bird”), the Brooklyn Rod & Gun social club (Wainwright’s “Old Paint”), and Pete’s Candy Store bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (June’s “Wildwood Flower”).
While some curious listeners will undoubtedly be drawn in by the better-known artists, Volume 1 is a rewarding opportunity to discover many new and unfamiliar voices, and there are numerous gems scattered throughout the album’s two sides.
Recorded in a Brooklyn loft, Leah Siegel’s version of “A Little Love, A Little Kiss” is delicate and aching, her voice hovering wistfully above her softly strummed acoustic guitar. “Glory, Glory” by the Wandering, featuring North Mississippi Allstars guitarist Luther Allison, is a jubilant guitar-fife-and-vocal workout recorded in a NoHo alleyway, below which a passing subway train adds its unmistakable rumble to the proceedings.
The set concludes with Dawn Landes’ lovely lilting performance of the Scottish (by way of Appalachia) ballad “The Brown Girl,” among the most daring works of audio verite included here. Recorded on a summer day in Brooklyn’s Botanic Garden amid the sounds of bees, cicadas, wandering children, and buses along Washington Avenue, it follows the concept of “field recording” to its literal intent.
For more information, audio, video, and to order The 78 Project Volume 1, visit The 78 Project.