Mark David Ashworth’s first album also marks the debut of Autobus Records, the new artist-run label by the Wheel Collective, which, in addition to Ashworth, includes Jared Van Fleet (Voxtrot, Sparrow House), Martin Crane (Brazos), and Nathan Stein (Tacks, the Boy Disaster, The Early Tapes). Viceroy was originally self-released earlier this year, but is now appearing under the Autobus umbrella, which will follow Ashworth’s disc with the release of the next two Sparrow House EP’s later this Spring.
The album opens with “Several Afternoons At Once,” a soft descending piano run played against the distant chiming bells of a church tower and the ambience of the lazy late-day street. It’s an appropriate intro for the mellow folk songs that follow, as Ashworth’s songs seem to arise from those siesta cobblestones, collecting cultural artifacts through a delicate observation that evokes a distinct atmosphere of place without pressing specific details. Almost cinematic images emerge through the music, acoustic guitar strummed with a subdued Latin American flair, all accentuated by Ashworth’s soft high voice.
Songs like “Dirt” and “Something We Can Hold in Our Hands” best paint these musical landscapes, the former a culminating in fluid, layered vocal harmony while the latter builds ethereal textures against the backdrop of a recorded thunderstorm. The graceful piano on “Something We Can Hold” is almost Victorian in its aesthetic, eerily meshed with the melancholic guitar as Ashworth dismantles a sad legend of conquistador glory: “A village burned, they were unhelpful, they answered arrows to our simple questions, where’s the gold we were promised, something we can hold in our hands.” In this sense too, there is a strong influence of early country-western ballads – the songs of Johnny Horton or Marty Robbins or Tom Russell - where narratives are so distinctly grounded to a specific environment.
On more lighthearted tunes like “On the Forming of Routines,” a polka bounce reiterates the familiar developing comfort, while “Eggs” playfully climbs and falls amid various swirling effects. Yet Ashworth is generally more dedicated to heavier topics despite the easy and dulcet air of his songs, as on “We Built a Levee” or “Silver and Gold” both disarmingly imperative in theme but smooth in tone. That import may be somewhat suppressed behind the gossamer trills, but it also proves Ashworth’s songwriting is deeper than upon first listen.
Fittingly, Ashworth remains silent on the final track, ultimately letting place represent itself in the return of the street sounds and church bells of the opening track for “Carillon Song.” Ashworth has an anthropologist’s ear, and rather than dictate or impose an understanding of the world, he lets it unfold naturally within his songs. Likewise, the songs themselves demand an ethics of openness from us, never forcing, but instead letting the listener eventually find them on their own.