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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 76.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Tim Eriksen: Soul of the January Hills
(Appleseed Records)

Tim Eriksen isn't your average folksinger. He's an ethnomusicologist with a penchant for Sacred Harp, a four-part a cappella singing tradition with roots in the American South. He's the kind of guy who makes ancient songs seem as relevant today as they were hundreds of years ago, in part because he's not afraid to break the rules. When he visited Jaroslaw, Poland's Benedictine Abbey, two years ago, he snuck a digital recorder into one of its towers and emerged with the material for his new CD.

Technically, this isn't a Sacred Harp recording since it contains just one vocal part. However, the majestic power of Eriksen's voice is equivalent to that of a chorus. Album opener "As I Travel" serves as a hymn to a mother's guiding influence and an incantation to the tracks to come. Eriksen travels back to the 15th century with "John Randolph," an American version of the British ballad "Lord Randall," which tells of a young man poisoned by his love, or perhaps a tainted meal of eel.

Meanwhile, "I Wish the Wars Were All Over," based on an 18th-century lament, expresses how difficult it is to be happy when a loved one is in danger. And while his arrangement of "Amazing Grace" sounds melancholy at first, twisting and tumbling through minor-sounding chord progressions, the combination of Eriksen's brawny vocals and his backup band of eerie silence is more compelling than the cheery, major-key versions Bible camps and high school choirs perform.

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