Years from now, this collection of songs will be one of the indispensable artifacts arising from the events on 9/11. Back-to-roots music - perhaps best exemplified by the popularity of the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack - is increasingly popular. Yet "Vigil" is not a re-enactment of some past age, but a contemporary collection of songs written in-the-moment to try to capture a few sides of the many reactions to that event.
Recorded without overdubs or post-production, "Vigil" is the kind of raw recording chronicled in books such as Greil Marcus' "Invisible Republic" and in reissues such as the Smithsonian/Folkways 1997's re-issue of "Anthology of American Folk Music". Those yearning for the relative simplicity of the pre-digital age, of vinyl, will appreciate "Vigil's" "recorded-in-the-living room" qualities.
Until 9/11, American's have had few shared experiences of late, save for a few mass entertainment events - the Super Bowl or maybe the Academy Awards. "Vigil" provides a first take on what 9/11 might mean, and in so doing, the artists chronicled a collection experience through personal stories.
One will not find a stirring rendition of "God Bless America" on "Vigil." Rather, the perspectives of the songs are more modest and human-sized. They run the gamut from the tragic, such as Jack Hardy's melancholy "On a Clear Day," an instant classic that transcends 9/11 to unite grieving with hope, to the sardonic, best heard in Bob Hillman's "World Trade Center", a song that captures the reality that 9/11 was first and foremost a shared television experience, and "Communists," which bemoans that "communists are no longer dangerous," replaced by "Politicians/Belgians/Escaped zoo animals."
For such a simple album, the stylistic range of the collection is impressive. The album jumps right into the immediacy, clarity, and charm of Christine Lavin's "Firehouse." Later, is the dreamlike, hypnotic distortion of dawn Landes' "A Well Dressed Man," a song that combines the ghostly sound of the Cowboy Junkies with the vocals of Canadian singer Mary-Margaret O'Hara, a kind of folk-rap-poetry hybrid. John Albrink's "The Beauty of the Day" considers the clear blue sky of 9/11 before the crash, in a melodic, wistful manner that is part Elvis Costello and part "Perfect Day" by Lou Reed. Wendy Beckerman's "You Never Know" and Ira May Wool's "Boxcutters and Knives" feature wonderfully understated vocals married to unflinching and direct lyrics.
These songs, and others in the collection, ultimately
stand the most important test: they are a pleasure to listen to and do not wear-out
their welcome by leaning too hard on a "message". If there is a message
to "Vigil" at all, it may well lie in Beckerman's "Yu Never Know:"
"This is why I memorize you eyes before I go/Only going round the corner,
but you never know."