A Blabber’n’Smoke favourite, Michael Rank continues his unfettered exploration into the hinterlands of bare boned Americana on Red Hand, his sixth album in four years. Over the course of these albums his husk of a voice has drifted over music that has Appalachian roots but also recalls a grizzled alt country sound that goes back to The Band and The Stones’ occasional forays into country music while elements of The Grateful Dead, Neil Young and The Jacobites have been woven into the thread at times. The slow drizzle of guitars, plaintive fiddle and tentative mandolin with occasional licks of pedal steel that have characterised his latter work have also included an increasing use of a female vocal foil with Emily Frantz and Skylar Gudasz previously featured. His last album Horsehair found him singing with Heather McEntire (of Mount Moriah) and she returns here singing on all of the songs, the pair of them a wonderfully fractured duo, an alternative George and Tammy if you will.
In his press interviews for Red Hand Rank has spoken of his introduction to music back in the seventies and his liking of “soft rock” troubadours such as Cat Stevens, the PR blurb saying it’s like “70’s radio filtered through a Civil War fiddle.” However there’s no Moonshadow type meanderings here as Rank continues to dig into the sinews of deep dark and weird Americana, a perfect embodiment of what Greil Marcus was hinting at when he described The Basement Tapes as “palavers with a community of ghosts.” Rank and McEntire sing like a pair of revenants, wraiths gathered around a microphone whispering their covenants, the band wrapped around them like a Kudzu plant.
That Civil War fiddle opens and closes the first song River Road, a plaintive intro to a gutsy song that does indeed recall the more muscular Cat Stevens of Can’t Keep It In as Rank’s usual skeletal backing is adorned by the Wurlitzer playing of James Wallace adding a bit of oomph. There’s more of that oomph on the horn backed 1964, a swampy ooze of a song but the following Jacob, a magnificent swoon of a song with creamy pedal steel stamps Rank’s standing as a major player. It’s a perfect song suffused with emotion, the vocals stained with an authenticity that beggar’s belief as they strain to connect generations. There’s a heartbreak woven into the fabric of the album with Milkweed a dreamlike recollection of carnal love lost set to a mournful, almost Celtic, lament while The Lord He Take Away is a powerful and intricate assemblage of sawed fiddle and plaintive pedal steel supporting a tale that could be straight from the likes of Cold Mountain. Forever And A Day is a devastating love song as Rank and McEntire sing in unison of their hopes for a wedding day but the music and their delivery seems to suggest that it’s a forlorn hope. Again this song just weeps with emotion, Rank a puppet master of emotive string pulling delivering slivers of painful beauty.
Red Hand confirms Blabber’n’Smoke’s belief that Michael Rank is an artist of the first degree. Six albums in with all of them somewhat magnificent he deserves to be heard far and wide. Currently he doesn’t travel out with North Carolina but videos of his performances locally show that he can carry off his superb concoction of stained and strained melancholic country laments with ease. Have a listen and then buy the albums, you won’t regret it.
And here’s an older piece from Rank, one that we think shows off his particular talent.