Listening to Black Prairie’s debut, Feast of the Hunter’s Moon, is like walking onto the set of an HBO show about fear, longing, betrayal and loneliness — think Deadwood, or maybe Six Feet Under. The music created by this Portland, Ore.-based quintet sounds as if it comes from a different time and place. According to dobroist Chris Funk, that’s the point; he says the sound Black Prairie makes “bridges the music of Clarence White and Ennio Morricone.” In other words, it’s a sound which defies any kind of genre characterization.
The musicians themselves do, too. The quintet was started by two members of The Decemberists: guitarist Chris Funk and bassist Nate Query. They decided to start a primarily instrumental string band as a way to present music that didn’t really work with The Decemberists’ sound. They asked another Decemberist, Jenny Conlee, to play accordion, and invited Portland musicians Annalisa Tornfelt and Jon Neufeld to add their talents as violinist/vocalist and guitarist, respectively.
Black Prairie’s songs consist mostly of instrumentals, and their arrangements pull from bluegrass and old-time string-band traditions. But Black Prairie adds its own twist, mixing accordion and violin to mimic Eastern European sounds, while also incorporating Tornfelt’s vocals on a few selections.
The first two tracks are quietly creepy, evoking images of barren Midwestern landscapes and lonely travelers wandering across the country. The imagery is so strong that it’s hard to prepare for the abrupt and dramatic shift to the cheerful, upbeat “Back Alley.” Then it’s back to a quiet and spare sound, followed quickly by a tune that’s almost a parody of an old-time barn dance. The music shifts back to a more meditative state before changing again and again and again. There’s a lot going on in Black Prairie’s music, so it’s hard to guess what’ll happen next. It’s a whirlwind of sound that can be hard to follow, but in a good way.