If I start this review by mentioning that As Long as Songbirds Sing by Kitchman/Schmidt is a collection of traditional folk songs reinterpreted for a new age, it might switch some readers off instantly. So often we rave about deeply personal self written albums from artists, so the prospect of a record like this might not be to everyone’s tastes. Hopefully I’ll be able to convince you to ignore those preconceptions here, as there’s so much depth to discover on this intriguing album.
I’ve struggled to place a genre label on As Long as Songbirds Sing as it pulls from so many different places musically. These songs definitely originate from a place of Folk music, so that’s a start, but the instrumentation feels more like Jazz, or Low-Fi minimalism even. Maybe Atmospheric Jazz Folk would be a good genre to call it, the sort of buzz word that means absolutely nothing until you hear this very specific record. One thing it is is instantly engaging, I can’t remember hearing a record like this in a long time.
The most obvious reason it’s so engaging to me are the vocals, performed throughout by singer Sylvia Schmidt. Haunting is the best way to describe her tone, a piercing almost operatic quality comes through on every song here. Her ability to achieve such a delicate emotional performance throughout is outstanding and it’s by far my favourite thing about this album in general. On ‘Go ‘Way From My Window’ there’s even a moment of improvisation that showcases her effortless ability to sing in such a dynamic way. ‘Black Is The Colour’ feels like a choral event from a cathedral or something, like Schmidt is alone in the room her voice echoing all around.
It’s on songs like ‘Black Is The Colour’ where I was fully engaged with this as an album. The instrumentation is so daring and unexpected, often stripped to just guitar and vocals, but starting with a series of sounds that feel like they could be be emerging from anywhere. The dissonance and minor chords here are especially intriguing and slightly unsettling too. The guitar heard on every song here is performed by the Kitchman of the group’s name, James Kitchman and he has this ability to breathe life into the gaps in between his playing, a true gift of anyone playing acoustically.
Some of the other songs here are a little more straightforward though, ‘One Mornin’ In May’ and ‘Little Black Star’ feel much more in the Traditional style I would have expected, while ‘The Lonesome Prairie’ feels just on the edge of going off into a more Americana sound. These moments are pleasant and certainly played and performed well, but it’s the more unexpected Jazz influenced songs that I kept coming back to.
The definite highlight is ‘Lowlands’, that sums up the haunting and off kilter nature of the best moments on this record perfectly. I’m not surprised this has been the initial taster of the album, as it’s full of mystery and interesting musicianship from the duo. It takes until closing song ‘I’m Going Away’ for the album to reclaim this high point for me, the opening reading of the poem Das Elfte Sonett by Brecht while twinkling electronic sounds surround Schmidt’s voice is so unexpected it feels lie the perfect way to close the album.
I went in with absolutely the wrong expectations of As Long as Songbirds Sing, expecting a traditional folk record. Instead this is a daring and haunting album, with a vocal and guitar performance I’ll remember for a while. The sort of album I would love to hear performed live exactly how it was recorded here. An unexpected and intriguing album.
Words by Sam Atkins.