Posts Tagged ‘Folk’

h1

Off This Century – My Favorite Albums of 2000-2009

December 25, 2009
Advertisements
h1

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

h1

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.

h1

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

h1

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

h1

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

h1

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