CD Review: ‘Folk Chamber Music’: ‘Ruins and Foundations’ by Spencer Lewis | Vermont Arts


When he’s not playing music or recording albums, Spencer Lewis is a stonecutter. His masonry is masterful and he has garnered praise for it. So it’s no surprise that his latest album, number 29 in a long recording career, is called “Ruins and Foundations.”

“‘Making Ruins’ pretty much saved me last winter, spring, summer and fall,” the Randolph musician wrote in an email.

For many musicians, the COVID weather has been a mixed blessing or curse. Most musicians in Vermont earn part of their living from concerts and COVID has been difficult for live performances. On the other hand, with so much time unfilled with performances, many have become more creative, hitting the recording studio and recording new music. Lewis took advantage of this downtime with his latest recording.

Lewis has a lot of experience recording new music, mostly in his home studio. He has become a master at overdubbing tracks as he builds the sonic layers that make up a song. For a stonecutter, there is surely a link between the layering of rocks and the layering of musical parts.

“In between building stone walls in the summer of 20,” Lewis writes, “I made up a song originally called ‘Deep Summer’…then totally forgotten until the following summer, when I was ready tackling the overdubs (to this new album.) It was a very complex song for me, and I couldn’t deal with it right away. Overdubbing is hard work, make no mistake about it.

Lewis created a large number of recorded works, beginning in the 1970s, primarily because he could visualize many different instrumental parts and layer them into a single track. His trademark on his mostly instrumental albums is layers of acoustic guitar and violin. Its melodies are mostly simple folk music. His guitar parts are mostly strummed with a few single-line melodic passages. His violin, soft and discreet, has long balanced his guitar sounds.

On “Ruins”, Lewis reached a new level of recording and instrumental prowess. By adding viola and mandolin, much more than in recent albums, he has achieved what he calls “the sound of folk chamber music”.

The viola fills an auditory space sought by Lewis. “The viola is not just ‘another four-stringed instrument,'” according to Lewis. “He has a different weight and role. Of course, since Rhiannon Giddens (formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Grammy Award winner and MacArthur Fellow) loves the viola and just plays the same fiddle tunes on it, I think he plays a good role different in sound from the folk chamber music that matured on this album.

Fans of Spencer Lewis’ music, those who have followed his career and appreciate the signature sound he has developed will find that “Ruins” takes his music in a more mature direction, not a different one. Using viola, mandolin and a variety of acoustic guitars with drum work provided by Jeff Berlin, Lewis filled in some of the sonic spaces that his previous recordings could not address.

Yet there remain the often enigmatic titles of the tracks, like “Burst” and “Cold Snow” on this album. Then there’s “A Candle for Vera Miles”, which Lewis says, “it’s really four songs, but I never stop between 1 and 2, and 3 and 4, so I made them one song each .”

In discussing this track, Lewis explains much of his music making and recording process. He says he relies on “that good old stream of consciousness” to record while also relying on “folk grooves”.

“The guitar part for ‘A Candle for Vera Miles’ and its sequel ‘#2’ was a four-part stream of consciousness,” he explained. “In each, there’s a break about halfway through, but the tape continues to spin as I play. ‘Take #2’ was recorded minutes later while in the same space decomposition.

For Lewis, these tracks “have a certain six-string articulation I’ve been craving for years, while the added viola, fiddle, and mandolin meld into the ambient Americana chamber music accompaniment that pervades everything.”

About the title, we learn it was “a small way to honor Vera Miles, the actress who provided understated grace and beauty to many of my favorite movies.” Miles starred in “Psycho” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

“Ruins and Foundations” is Spencer Lewis’ most comprehensive and sophisticated album to date. He succeeded in obtaining the elusive sound of “folk chamber music” that he had been seeking for a long time. With sparkling guitar work, the deep voice of the viola, the added melodic content that a mandolin brings, and his signature violin sound, Lewis has produced an album that old fans and new enthusiasts alike will appreciate.


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