Long rumoured to be in the works, an album of Michael Hurley songs performed by others has finally emerged, blinking, into daylight. For those not aware of him, Hurley is one of the surviving links to, as Greil Marcus has it, that Old Weird Americana. From his first recordings in 1965 for Folkways, up until the present, Hurley has inhabited a domain where country, blues and folk collide and he has peopled it with an amazing array of characters, some grim and doomed such as his famed werewolf, others, cartoonish, bawdy and, at times, lascivious – check out Boone and Jocko. Above all, Hurley allows us to view his world via some stunningly beautiful songs. Some are raw, gnawed from his hinterland, while there are several which have a rich groove and then others which are just quite achingly tender. It’s no surprise really that such a unique artist has rarely troubled the mainstream but, equally unsurprising, he has gathered a cult following which has included a good number of musicians over the years.
Many of those musicians have paid tribute to Hurley on their respective albums, covers of his songs abound, especially amidst the weird folk movement pioneered by Devandra Banhart. Snockument, punningly named after one of his many alter egos, is however, the first bona fide collection of cover songs. It has Hurley’s stamp of approval, an important issue as previous attempts at delivering such an album were nixed by him. As he declared of one of the earlier submissions, “He didn’t have the melody, he didn’t have the words, so what did he have…? I didn’t want the song represented that way. I figured, ‘This is one of my best songs and I want it out there in the public like it is’.” So, the album gathers some songs from those previous attempts which did make the cut along with a couple of previously released covers and some recorded specifically for what we might call “Snockument – Take 3.”
Despite such disparate origins, the album is a joy to listen to and it flows wonderfully. Hurley has selected the songs and sequenced them such that there are no joins to be heard between sessions recorded back in the 1990’s to the present day. The 10 songs here are but a dip into Hurley’s immersive world but they will be more than familiar to fans and all are delivered with what appears to be a great sense of affection and connection with the man. There’s reverence and ribaldry here, quite fitting.
Cat Power’s version of Werewolf is probably the song which most folk will gravitate to immediately. Plucked from her 2003 album You Are Free, it is suitably spooky while Power deftly switches the werewolf’s gender so that it is a she who “loves the young man as I tear off his clothes.” If this sends folk back to Hurley’s stunningly crepuscular original version then the album has done its job. There are other familiar names on board. A 2004 Calexico offer a finely laid back Rue Of Ruby Whores which slides down the neck as easily as a glass of Knockando while Yo La Tengo transform Polynesia into a shimmering languid dream state and Cass McCombs, with guitarist Steve Gunn in tow, follows the original template of Sweet Lucy quite faithfully.
As befits Hurley’s underground reputation however, several of the acts involved here are hardly household names. Little Sue, a Portland singer, captures Hurley’s old time essence in her version of Somebody To Say Goodbye To and another Portland outfit, The Hackles, hack excellently into Hurley’s sense of wonder on Oh My Stars. The Chicken Chokers give Watertrain a fine string band delivery and Chicago’s Vernon Tonges packs some punch vocally into his bracing and slightly lop sided version of I Still Could Not Forget You Then. Perhaps the most imaginative cover comes from Manchester’s Daniel Bridgwood-Hill, recording as dbh. He takes Hurley’s saw fiddled Hog Of The Forsaken (as heard on TV’s Deadwood) and transforms it into a guitar, fiddle and whistled Antebellum lament which reminds one of Jay Ungar’s Ashokan Farewell. It’s just lovely.
So there we have it, finally. Snockument comes in vinyl, dressed in a sleeve featuring a Hurley painting and with an illustrated gatefold booklet. There may be a CD release in the near future which might include an expanded set list but in the meantime, this handsome and very desirable limited edition is available from Dublin’s Blue Navigator Records