The word folk is tossed about haphazardly whenever an Irish person picks up a guitar these days. The distance between Dublin and Appalachia grows shorter with each passing open-mike night and the genre has been watered down to the point of near-impotence but ever so often you come across musicians who will champion simplicity over embellishment, who use only what they need and nothing more to get to the end of a song. This is what The Lost Brothers have achieved in their latest venture New Songs of Dawn and Dust, and have effectively reminded us what folk was meant to mean when it meant something.
Mark McCausland and Oisin Leech teamed up in 2008 for their debut album Trails of the Lonely, the first of a musical trilogy that ended with their critically acclaimed record The Passing of the Night (2012). New Songs of Dawn and Dust is the start of something new for the band. It is stunningly produced by fellow musician Bill Ryder-Jones and reads like a dusty Western.
The record opens with wordless waltz ‘Spanish Reprise’, a lullaby heard before waking perhaps, followed by what is the happiest tune on the record ‘Days Ahead’. Already we’re treated to Leech’s gravely vocals and McCausland’s searing harmony line. It’s fair to say that not since Gillian Welch and David Rawlings did two voices make so much sense. We go on to ‘Soldier’s Song’, a country anthem reminiscent of the late-great Pete Seger and perhaps accidentally poignant in these times. “I was a soldier in that old war/ They never told me what I died for.”
The album takes a turn at the second instrumental, ‘Nocturnal Tune’. We proceed into the underground of love and the aftermath of a hopeful waking. ‘Poor Poor Man’ and ‘Hotel Loneliness’ remind you of Hank Williams on one of his more depressing days. The downturn pauses at ‘Between the Crow and the Rat’, an exceptional moment of the record that balances somewhere between the opening of a Hitchcock film and a John Cage experiment. The album ends with ‘Stones Throw’, which will no doubt end the lucky night of a few thousand concertgoers this autumn.
The Lost Brothers are nuanced to the point of importance. It is a humble and deftly executed record. They did not land on this album arbitrarily. They have gone to the edge of something and returned, polishing the stones of Woody Guthrie and The Delmore Brothers and then building a castle of their own. Like a nice wine that lingers long after the swallow, New Songs of Dawn and Dust expands after the first hearing. They are innovative in adopting and defecting. In this way, they are truly folk. And for this reason, they deserve our attention.