Posts Tagged ‘Folk’

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Off This Century – My Favorite Albums of 2000-2009

December 25, 2009
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Kurt Vile – God Is Saying This to You…

August 23, 2009

I’m going to be honest, 2009. You’re really disappointing me. We’re almost a full eight months into the year, and musically this is one one of the most disappointing years I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s just last year’s utter blowout that couldn’t help but put this year to shame. Even since my end of the year Best of 2008 list was published, I keep on finding awesome albums from 2008. So maybe this year just seems like it sucks in comparison. It’s not like there haven’t been any good albums this year: Animal Collective, Neko Case, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Phoenix and Dinosaur Jr. have all released albums that I have liked a lot, and there are a smattering of other albums that I’ve also enjoyed well enough (Tiny Vipers, Clark, and Matt & Kim have had some of the more low key releases that I’m fond of). But the truth is that only one album this year has really wowed me, and as far as I’m concerned it is the only great album of 2009 thus far that I’ve found. By all means, prove me wrong! Give me some recommendations here! I’d be more than willing to give this album some company, but for now I want to give said album some recognition.

Kurt Vile - God Is Saying This to You...

Kurt Vile - God Is Saying This to You...

The truth with folk singer Kurt Vile is self evident; he is a gifted songwriter, and although Constant Hitmaker might be more of a sensible, song based release, there is something special and unique about God Is Saying This To You, a limited release album packaged with the vinyl reissue of Hitmaker. For starters, it is more toned down and acoustic compared to Hitmaker, making it much more personal and understated. Of the twelve songs here, six are fully formed folk songs and they are all excellent, and among the best and most emotionally affecting songs of the year. Of the remaining six, one (“White Riffs”) is a tiny guitar interlude and the other five are short retro electronic experiments. I can anticipate the complaint that the album would seem like only half of a fully formed folk album, the other half useless ham. But those six songs are just too interesting to ignore. They feel like the norm, some strange everyday events, and also further accentuate the folk songs. When Vile sings on the folk songs, he makes every word count, and his lyrics are just as haunting and gripping as his guitar work, mostly because they, like the interludes, feel like regular events with powerful gravity. Often times Vile leaves large instrumental gaps in his pieces, and when he finally speaks subtle words about social anxiety or simple pleasures, they are completely memorable. I wish I could cite them here but I would hate to ruin them for a first listener. And the first time I listened to this, it ended in what felt like just a matter of minutes. Granted, it is a short album, but it strikes a very strange, personal chord. Don’t be surprised if you come back begging for more like I did. I hope Vile’s excellence really is as reliable as it seems. He’s just signed to Matador, and his new album, Childish Prodigy, is due out in October, so keep an ear open. Vile has a two album winning streak going and he’s at a full sprint, so let’s see if he can keep it going.

kurt_vile

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Grouper / City Center – Split 7": False Horizon / This is How We See in the Dark

March 13, 2009

Grouper / City Center - Split 7

Grouper / City Center - Split 7"

In 2007, ambient/drone artist Liz Harris, otherwise known as Grouper, released a split LP with fellow West Coast experimental drone artist Eva Saelens, otherwise known as Inca Ore. At the time, the two artists were contemporaries in every way, coming from the same general geographical area as solo artists, both crafting eerie dark ambient music and having had a few albums under their belts. Grouper gave a taste of the succulent melodicism that was to come in full force on her subsequent album Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, and Inca Ore provided ambient noise soundscapes that wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack of a horror film.

In the end the scales tipped toward Grouper, the reason being that Inca Ore’s material really only catered to fans of noise and the most difficult of dark ambient, and the songs Grouper provided were the most advanced as well as accessible of any other work she had yet done. With that said, the progression of Grouper’s catalogue is very traceable. Starting with the impenetrable dark ambient of her debut album, Way Their Crept, through the slightly more experimental but still drone heavy Wide, then to the subtly melodic Cover The Windows and the Walls, then the aforementioned bittersweet melodies on the Split LP,  and up to the sublimely melodic Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill; Harris’ output has always moved closer and closer to flat out folk music, and her contribution to this split single, “False Horizon,” is finally the pinnacle of that progression.

The song pulses with lightly strummed guitars that are no longer completely submerged but only knee deep in liquidic reverberation. The only melodic tools used here are a single acoustic guitar and several layers of harmonized vocals. It is the barest Harris has ever left herself or any of her music, no longer a claustrophobic cacophony that we heard on Way Their Crept and Wide, as engaging as they were. As usual, the vocals here are only partially intelligible. We can almost be sure that Harris sings “where bodies float down,” at some point, but it is hard to tell, and this sense of mystery has served her well before, but never quite in such an accessible context. In effect, this is Liz Harris relying solely on her songwriting ability, which we can say with great certainty now is excellent. The result is a dark, addictive, intriguing single that is very tangible, what was hinted at on Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, which never quite reached the bare bones nature of “False Horizon.”

The other single here, “This is How We See in the Dark” by newcomers City Center, is also significant. The band, a duo of Brooklyn natives Ryan Howard and Fred Thomas, make experimental folk music in the same way as Grouper, but with a more eclectic sonic palette. This is mostly to their advantage, and many of their songs are sonically standout as well as charmingly melodic, but they don’t have the sticking power that Grouper’s music does. But if they have more songs like “This is How We See in the Dark” in store, then they are a band that we would be best to trace the progress of. The song sounds a bit like a warped carnival song, but with more melancholy than creepiness. In a few instances, the group’s experimental sound encroaches on the body of the song, but not without purpose. The hazy, contorted melody is about as memorable as “False Horizon,” and in the end both songs are good.

Although both sides of this single are quality songs, “False Horizon” really steals the show here, the reason being that Liz Harris commands attention with every release she makes and is by this time a reliable guru of her craft. The quality of her music has increased on an exponential curve, and she shows no sign of slowing down. With all due respect to City Center, this is really Grouper’s triumph. The release’s biggest problem is undoubtedly availability. The single is limited to self-released limited edition appropriately colored “dirty water gray” vinyl only, which is now out of stock, so acquiring these songs means either doing it illegally or hunting down and shelling out a high price for the vinyl, which is frustrating. But until the day when these songs are (hopefully) released on CD or through iTunes like the Inca Ore / Grouper split was, or the possibility that they will be released on forthcoming albums is fruitful, these excellent singles will be heard by few. The Split album with Inca Ore showed promise that Harris was capable of something outstanding. She delivered on that promise with Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. We can be hopeful that history will repeat itself and Grouper will release yet another masterpiece.

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Shugo Tokumaru – Night Piece

February 27, 2009
Shugo Tokumaru - Night Piece

Shugo Tokumaru - Night Piece

Miles Davis once said, “Don’t play what’s there – play what’s not there.” Shugo Tokumaru’s debut album Night Piece seems to do just this, perhaps not in the exact way that Davis described his musical philosophy, but much like a wood block painting where musical subtleties are outlined by vast expanses of empty space that jut off into infinity. Tokumaru’s lean, twenty five minute micro-music album, however, is quite finite at first listen. It seems to be over as soon as it starts, and just a few listens reveal just about everything the album has to offer. Why, then, does it demand the close attention and repeated listens that it does? Night Piece reaches a sort of equilibrium where sweet melodies and subtle irregularities balance each other out. For this reason, the album is completely engaging and ambitious, but simultaneously warm and comforting. The humble melodies are often left bare and full, so that each pluck fills the massive space it inhabits and each rhythm takes confident control. It is difficult to describe the simple command that the album has, but once it hooks you it doesn’t let go. Every song is a musical haiku, completely satisfied with its own simple beauty. Once you get comfortable with Night Piece, it might as well blanket your thoughts and really just make you extremely HAPPY for an indefinite number of plays.

Shugo Tokumaru

Shugo Tokumaru

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Akron/Family – Akron/Family

February 22, 2009
Akron/Family - Akron/Family

Akron/Family - Akron/Family

One of the most representative artists in the neo freak folk movement was Brooklyn based Akron/Family, and their self titled debut is one of the most memorable folk albums of its time. The concept is straightforward. Accompany simple campfire melodies (some of the best melodies on record, as it happened), with sharp contrasts in electronics and production. The results are intriguing; the often bizarre idiosyncrasies make the songs distinctive and memorable, yet still warm and comforting. From the R2D2 bleeps and bloops of the opening “Before And Again,” to the lush synthesizers in “I’ll Be On The Water,” through the splashes of reverberation and recorded natural sounds on “Afford,” all the way to the crooked horns and vocals on “Franny/You’re Human,” Akron/Family is loaded with highlights that feel like fragments of great folklore with surreal modern contexts. Although quite strange, an album as warm and intimate as this is a rarity.

Akron/Family

Akron/Family

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2. Grouper – Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

December 31, 2008
Grouper - Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

Grouper - Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

Portland Oregon’s Liz Harris, otherwise known as Grouper, has moved toward a more melodic sound with Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. She has transformed from a studio hermit who crafts ambient slowcore to a troubador who crafts folk music, and the cloud of ambiance that she created to hang over her head has simply followed her. Her earliest albums, Way Their Crept and Wide, were notable ambient experiments and hinted at real melodic talent, but Dead Deer fleshes out these promises. The listener watches from a box seat in an otherwise empty theater as Harris weaves an intricate story through music. The result is an album that is at once haunting and beautiful, answers questions that her earlier albums posed, and raises even more. The first of which will undoubtedly be, “what is she saying?” The lyrics on Dead Deer are nearly unintelligible, but here they break through the fog more often than on previous works. The music mostly consists of simple guitar and vocal melodies, produced in a very full way. This formula, without much change, should have made for an extremely boring album, and at first that was what it seemed like to me. But I came back to this album, and not because anyone told me to. It has an eerie gravity due in part to it’s obscurity. Dead Deer is structured as a musical narrative that we want to materialize into something we can fully understand, but it always floats just out of reach. The understandable lyrical content in conjunction with the song titles can be vaguely but not completely understood; the narrator has a fascination with water, sleep, and dissociation from reality. The mood is melancholy throughout, but Harris’ melodic talent as well as careful attention to dynamics and slight variations make for utterly gripping pieces that demand further attention. After repeated listens, each song becomes individual and creates its own world. Songs match their titles. The album’s two instrumentals (although they do have bits of vocal ambiance in them), Wind and Snow and Tidal Wave, replicate desolate loneliness and a swirling wall of sound respectively. The longest song on the album, Stuck, flounders hopelessly like a fish out of water and can’t seem to find a chorus, verse, or bridge. Invisible sounds like a children’s song with a dark, unidentifiable twist. And I’m Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, which acts as the centerpiece of the album, creates an aural representation of what dragging said deer (be it literal or metaphorical) up a hill would feel like. The emotional experience is very double edged, and thus that much more intriguing. It is both comforting and haunting, and it traces a path that seems to be close to the human condition. Liz Harris has tapped into something mysterious with Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, and I wonder if she knows exactly what it is. Regardless of whether she does, Dead Deer is a masterwork that is a result of astounding musicianship, and a sign of more great things to come.

Grouper

Grouper

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6. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

December 25, 2008

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

When I was thinking about what I could send my aunt in Kansas from college, I immediately thought of the Fleet Foxes album. There was something so utterly appropriate about the idea. I thought of visiting my aunt in Kansas, the gardens, plains, the ocean of trees, the wedding, the bag of helicopter maple seeds that she said was the grooviest gift my uncle had ever given to her, the abandoned watertower from which they were let loose, my uncle’s armory (yes, he makes armor), and times when distance between us was not so great. Fleet Foxes seemed to encompass all of this perfectly. So I walked out of my room, down the stairs, out the front door of my dorm, and twenty feet to the Starbucks across the street. I’ll admit, a transnational corporation with as much power and reach as Starbucks contrasts with the quaint, homely sounds of Fleet Foxes, but at the very least they are both “syrupy,” and they were selling hard copies of the album at the register. I have heard the entire album played all the way through several times while studying in Starbucks. My Starbucks is nice. It is the highest grossing Starbucks on the East coast, and yet it somehow manages to be the warmest and comfiest Starbucks I have been in. I study there often. My aunt, who is going to college in Kansas to become a teacher, is also a coffee house studier. Granted, hers sounds much cooler, but I feel like when I’m sitting in that Starbucks, studying and listening to Fleet Foxes, I am suddenly much closer to her. Listening to these songs is like taking a time machine to a simpler time and place. The past, present and future seem to be in harmony with one another. Fleet Foxes are quite a young band with much promise, and listening to their individual breed of ancient sounding sunny folk music is like watching a seed bud and grow into the oldest in the land in the span of one album. These songs seem to speak of legends passed through generations, the details of which have been shaped over time. Vocalist Robin Pecknold seems to need to repeat his words in each song, to sort through everything that has happened with as many smiles as tears. When I listen to this album in Starbucks, which happens frequently, I am keenly aware of the seasons outside and how my aunt in Kansas is going through the same changes and has been in the same place as I was at some point, and will be again soon enough. It’s not that I feel as if I am somewhere else, and I’m sure she still feels like she is in Kansas when she listens to it, but I feel at ease with where I am, which is an emotion far too many people, including myself, have forgotten.

Fleet Foxes

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Grouper – Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill

October 17, 2008

What a pleasant surprise that two of 2008s best releases are somewhat stylistically similar. Both Gregor Samsa’s Rest and Grouper’s Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill are introspective melancholy masterworks that deserve great praise and attention, but the latter might be both more difficult and rewarding.

Grouper is actually the work of a single individual, Portland Oregon’s folk/noise aficionado Liz Harris. There is very little information available on the artist. But this album will surely spark interest and cause a greater population of listeners to continue searching, in vain, for more information. But until the inevitable day when she hits it big, pretty much all that listeners will have to go on is her distinctive style which she articulates quite extensively on her studio albums, the latest of which is Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill.

As far as style goes on prior releases, Grouper’s genre is hard to pin down, perhaps most appropriately described as creepy atmospheric music, but on Dead Deer, Harris’s style is reduced to a singular approach. Almost every song consists solely of Harris on guitar and vocals, but the trick is that both of these instruments are multiplied. A very thick layer of distortion covers both like a blanket, causing them to resonate out into the atmosphere, and the vocals are occasionally doubled for harmonic effect, although their lyrical content is almost completely indecipherable.

This is probably the album’s most frustrating quality; the vast majority of Liz Harris’s vocals here are impossible to understand, too muddled under the thick distortion to decipher. What little is understandable is not passively heard. One has to concentrate on the vocals of the songs to realize their content, which mostly involves sleep, water, and dissociation from reality. However, the effect the distortion has on the lyrics is outweighed by what the production does for the music, which in turn matches these lyrical preoccupations quite well. From the opening chords of Disengaged, the production ruminates of stormy waters, the sparse melodies threaten to lull the listener into a deep sleep, and lonely, sad, and yearning chord progressions carry along.

All of these qualities, especially strung out over an entire release with little stylistic diversion, would presumably come together to make a very cold, unwelcoming album, but in fact the opposite is true. The production actually does the album’s atmosphere good, causing chords to echo out into the darkness like a flickering candle. In theory this should be a very creepy sounding album, but it is instead both startlingly melancholic and warmly emotional.

Perhaps what makes it so affecting are its subtle intricacies. Songs often times match their titles, namely the aforementioned excellent opener Disengaged, but even more recognizably the longest piece on the album, Stuck, whose progression is in constant conflict with itself and cannot seem to move on. Also very atmospherically distinctive and appropriately named are the barren Wind And Snow, and the following Tidal Wave, the album’s two most important songs, and opposite sides of the same coin.

These more texture based pieces work in good conjunction with the album’s more memorable melodies, namely the easy pick for best song Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping, the faster paced Fishing Bird, and the fractured title track. But the highlights don’t stop there. At first glance Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill seems like an awfully samesy album, but upon repeated listens the subtle differences between tracks flesh themselves out and each song becomes its own entity. Perhaps the most startling piece on the album is the quiet Invisible. Harris lightly sings, once again barely interpretable, “Invisible/I’ve become invisible” over her most simplistic, almost childlike melody on the album.

It is here that we realize that Dragging A Dead Deer up a hill is an album filled with secrets that will most likely never be fully understood. Even the title and art seem to be extremely important to the overall product, and yet there is no evidence as to what they mean. It is hard to say whether this was intended to simply be a collection of songs or a sort of narrative either literally or symbolically based off of the album’s creepy title, but in any case Dead Deer has an eerie, unexplainable cohesion. In this way the album’s form matches the style of its songs. It is easy to feel the presence of what is there behind the music when considering all of its subtle intricacies and almost tantalizing questions that are constantly asked but never quite answered, and for this reason, the music itself is that much easier to cling onto and appreciate. Because of all of these elements, Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill proves to be one of the most complex and rewarding albums of the year.

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Shugo Tokumaru – Exit

September 30, 2008

Prepare to have your definitions of Japanese pop turned inside out. If your perception of the genre has previously been restricted to products of MTV Asia, sub par anime, and j-pop pretty boys/girls, then prepare to get knocked off your barstool. Jack of all trades Shugo Tokumaru’s third solo album is the record that he has been destined to make since 2004’s mini pop masterpiece Night Piece. But both Night Piece’s nocturnal atmospherics and the following year’s psychedelic excursions of L.S.T. were highly themed, and it would only seem like a matter of time before Tokumaru would make an album like Exit, a full on pop album. Immediately significant is the first song, the first by Shugo that could constitute as a pop hit. It is here that all of his finest talents convene for one hell of a single. He has a great sense of the melodic hook, and his advertised multi-instrumental talent still ends up being the focal point of both Parachute and the better portion of the rest of the album. Silly melodic flourishes and gentle harmonies dress each piece, and the album is said to use over fifty of the one hundred instruments that Tokumaru claims to be able to play. This is only one of the many features of Tokumaru’s albums that have caused critics to label him a pop innovator. He is certainly this, but more in the traditional sense. The time signature switchups and chord progressions that the musician utilizes are definitely out of the ordinary, at least for traditional pop, but nothing here feels out of place, and every song is a whimsical, poppy gem splashed with childlike innocence and Eastern style. Also notable are his vocals, light, easily maneuverable, and completely appropriate for his music, and although his lyrics wont be understood by non-Japanese speakers, his emotion transcends language barriers. Highlights are not few. The first three songs, Parachute, Green Rain (continuing his tradition of songs named after various forms of precipitation) and Clocca are extremely memorable and easy picks for singles. The musician also finds room for straightforward guitar pop throughout, making the acoustic guitar his main instrument of choice as gently exemplified on Sanganichi. Also highly memorable are the last three songs. Hidamari is a gentle lullaby spectacularly detailed with lush instrumentation that manages to not be overbearing in any way. La La Radio is possibly the most ambitious song on the album. It transitions from melancholic to fast in catchy in about the most effective way imaginable. The album is capped off by Wedding, an instrumental piece that might have felt at home on Night Piece four years ago. What is truly amazing is that it feels completely at home here as well, which is a good indication that Tokumaru has amassed a solid repertoire of songs and styles throughout his three albums that can truly qualify him as a distinctive figure in music.

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Animal Collective & Vashti Bunyan – Prospect Hummer

September 18, 2008

There was likely not an artist more appropriate to collaborate with Animal Collective than Vashti Bunyan, but that does not make her appearance any more likely. After releasing her 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day, Vashti went quiet for nearly thirty five years before making music again. Why she returned to the business is up for grabs, but in any case she is essentially the mother of psychedelic folk and her presence is vastly appreciated. I can imagine that both artists were humbled to work with one another, which makes the understated end result of the Prospect Hummer EP that much more satisfying. The EP is only four songs long but hits with the power of a full album, with it’s own unique tropical sound and a highly effective progression. The song Prospect Hummer is its main feature, being the most prominent and melodic vocal track. A light acoustic guitar riff echoes back and forth over a tiny beat, over which some signature Animal Collective touchups are presented, and all this would have been enough to make the song a winner as an instrumental, but the true beauty of the song is in Vashti Bunyan’s vocals, which have lost none of their beauty through the years. When Vashti whispers her final lines over the fading relaxed tune, the result is pure magic. The other songs are more than slack though. The opening vocal track It’s You and the instrumental Baleen Sample more resemble Animal Collective’s earlier free form style, with rhythmless washes of sound that are fluid but deeply affecting. After Baleen Sample comes to an end, one would think that the conclusion would have been reached perfectly, but the final song, I Remember Learning How To Dive, is the real culmination of the album. There is nothing hidden with this song. It is an innocent, joyful recollection of a learning experience. The beat is once again tiny and the melody is simple and touching. Bunyan takes it away with her reserved but emotional singing, and the instrumentation is straightforward and nonintrusive. It is one of those songs that is both relaxing and deeply touching. But all four pieces of the puzzle here are essential, and Prospect Hummer is a unique EP of aural poetry.