This might be the most perfectly-paired side project in contemporary music. Gob Iron, named after the British slang for harmonica, is the duo of Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt) and Anders Parker (Varnaline), two of the most downbeat and deep-browed songwriters of the modern folk-rock era. Their common interest in balancing sunken dreams with eternal hope has earned both cult-hero status. It also provides the thematic string for "Death Songs..."
Few albums epitomize the "folk process" better. In their interpretations of traditional tunes, Farrar and Parker liberally borrow melodies and add lyrics throughout - "Darkness has descended/Speak up for Mr. Townes," Farrar sings on the opening "Death's Black Train." (Relax, copyright sticklers: All sponged sources are acknowledged in the liner notes.) The majority - "Silicosis Blues," "East Virginia Blues" are particularly effective - would be welcome inclusions on the new compilation "The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited."
Not everything works, though. The brief instrumental tracks that separate the titled tunes show - again - that Farrar's experimental bent can be perplexing. Sometimes they serve as smart interludes from weighty subject matter, but, more often than not, they're unnecessary distractions. Just like the "Space Junk" instrumentals that made the alt.-country star's otherwise excellent 2003 solo effort "Terrior Blues" feel too drawn out. But that's a small gripe against an excellent collection.