Despite her prolific and varied career as a singer/songwriter, Josephine Foster’s enduring reputation might rest most heavily upon her skill as an arranger and interpreter of other people’s work. From her mind-bending re-visionings of German lieder in 2006’s A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing to her most recent solo album of Emily Dickinson poems set to acoustic guitar, Graphic as a Star, Foster has demonstrated a talent for taking songs and poems that are brilliant in their own right and putting her own unique stamp upon them.
A notable entry into that body of work was Foster’s collaboration with Spanish folk artists The Victor Herrero Band on a reinterpretation of Federico García Lorca and La Argentinita’s Coleccion De Las Canciones Populares Espanolas. Perlas finds Foster and Herrero joining forces once more, this time on a set of Spanish-language songs and poems chosen by Foster herself from a variety of traditions. As with Anda Jaleo, there is very little (if anything) in these songs that would give them away as being products of the 21st century. The live, analogue studio recordings give the tracks an earthy physicality, and, of course, Foster’s trilling alto remains as enchantingly anachronistic as ever. It’s an album that would sound equally at home piping through the tinny speakers of an old AM radio as through a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
Yet Perlas is a very different album than Foster and Herrero’s previous outing, and a gentler affair in comparison to the sharper-edged flamenco of Anda Jaleo. The variety of the source material, which was derived from Castile, the Basque, Santander, and the Costa Brava, allows for a broader range of textures. It opens the ensemble up to the rousing harmonica solo that floats through the majestic “Cuando Vienes Del Monto” and the dizzying country waltz of “Dame Esa Flor.” It also leaves room for more expansive songs like “Puerto De Santa Maria” to unfold at a more leisurely pace. What is most notable about this collection, however, is the extent to which the artists themselves seem absent from it. Popular music, more than almost any other art form, is one built upon the cult of personality. Contemporary songwriters perform songs that help shape their image, and in turn mold their image into the likeness of their songs. Yet, historically, the folk balladeer was more a craftsman than an artist, a conduit for ancient cultural artifacts rather than a Promethean titan handing down the sacred fire of some NEW IDEA to the masses. Foster and Herrero are working in this older, more reverential tradition. One can appreciate their skill and talent in bringing these songs to life, but ultimately it is the songs themselves that matter most, with the performers existing simply as a means to an end.
The ego-void at the center of Perlas poses its share of challenges to the contemporary listener. While Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing was a far more experimental and, perhaps, a more sonically difficult record, there was something comforting in its lunar soundscapes (to borrow an expression from our own Chizzly St. Claw). Sure, it was a weird record, but it was a weirdness that the millennial indie rock kid could understand and relate to, a weirdness that gave us some ownership over the Germanic traditions to which she was paying homage. In the absence of an Artist, these humble, reverent reproductions leave us only with the beguiling, alien sounds of a far-off land to grapple with. I could describe those sounds, talk about the sensual beauty of the Spanish language and about Foster and Herrero’s intricate guitar filigrees, but I can’t really get inside of them, because they were not made for me and nothing in my cultural formation up to this point has trained me how to listen to them.
Despite these inherent barriers, there is a natural grace to these compositions that’s difficult to deny. Foster and Herrero’s continued efforts to mine Spain’s rich musical heritage and to make its treasures accessible to a broader audience is an admirable one, and their humility a fitting tribute to the countless poets, songsters, and performers who have kept that music alive for so many generations.