Saturday, December 30, 2006

CD REVIEW: Jenny Hoyston and William Elliott Whitmore's "Hallways of Always" EP

Label: Southern Records

Not so long ago, the world of country music gave us several outstanding duets and duet partnerships. Johnny Cash and June Carter quickly come to mind, thanks to the success of the 2005 hit film Walk the Line. So too do Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn, and George Jones and Tammy Wynette. And of course, we should not forget the wonderful music that Gram Parsons gave us during his far-too-brief life with duet partner Emmylou Harris. Unfortunately, the transformation of the genre into its current pop-dominated sound, at least in the mainstream, has killed the great country duet. Sorry folks, Tim and Faith just do not cut it with this listener.

Enter the team of Jenny Hoyston and William Elliott Whitmore and their recent EP project Hallways of Always. Hoyston, the lead singer of no wave band Erase Errata, and bluesy-folk artist Whitmore may not seem the most likely duo to release a country-tinged duet project. Thankfully for fans of real music though, the stars aligned just right. One may not exactly be able to call Hallways of Always a country release. Stripped-down, bare-boned, earthy folk may be the more appropriate name for its sound. However, the EP delivers a few great duet songs that are as memorable as any that have been released in the decades since Johnny and June delivered “Jackson” to the world.

However, Hallways of Always’ six songs are not all duets. The EP also features two solo songs (one by Whitmore, one by Hoyston), and ends with the self-titled instrumental. While the instrumental is uninteresting filler that should have been cut, the two solo songs are both solid. Whitmore’s “Black Iowa Dirt” is a celebration of the farmland of his home state, and the life it brings to the people. As he says in the song, he has the dirt underneath his fingernails, and running through his veins. The song could have easily been the opener to his incredible Song of the Blackbird album. Hoyston follows up with a great song of her own. “We Miss You,” an ode to her (or the song’s main character, at least) deceased father. In the song, she discusses how while she and her mom are doing fine, they still miss him. Loretta Lynn could EASILY have written this song… a definite winner.

Just as it should be, though, Hallways of Always’ best songs are Hoyston and Whitmore’s duets. The EP’s opener, “Feast of a Thousand Beasts,” is a dedication to our existence in the natural world. A supernatural power seems to hover over the two artists’ combined voice in this song, as though a higher power (Nature? God?) is speaking through them. Following this song is the organ-powered “You’re Already Gone.” This extremely powerful tearjerker is a story about a love that could not survive the trials and tribulations that the two characters have had to face. What makes the song memorable is that while both characters seem to realize that they have grown apart, they still are sorrowful about the end of their love. And Hoyston and Whitmore’s effective vocals make listeners believe that sorrow. Finally, after the two solo songs comes the EP’s greatest number: “Marrow.” The song tells the basic tale of a man proposing to a woman. After he promises never to break her heart again, she accepts… even though she knows her father will be irate. The story seems simple, but it works extremely well for a couple of reasons. The old-timey banjo-filled sound of the song matches perfectly with the song’s imagery, and the conversational style of lyrics is absolutely phenomenal! Hoyston and Whitmore play the roles of the lovers perfectly, and it makes for an incredible listening experience.

It is a shame that in today’s Tim and Faith world, thanks to mainstream radio, this EP will have such a limited listening audience. Other than the instrumental at the end, the songs range from solid to excellent, and the EP is a highly recommended purchase for anyone who longs for the day of classic country duets, or for those who just love outstanding singing and songwriting. Hallways of Always is a wonderful achievement for both Hoyston and Whitmore that leaves listeners hoping that the duo will be recording together again in the future.