Thursday, September 07, 2006

Hootenanny Special

I’ve been in a mellow, folky mood of late.

Horse Feathers – Words Are Dead

The debut album from Portland, Oregon folk duo Horse Feathers, Words Are Dead, is rapidly becoming one of my favorite releases of the year. Singer/songwriter Justin Ringle has a high, reedy voice that favorably recalls (and God forgive me for making this comparison) Nick Drake. He writes poetic, enigmatic lyrics about something or other (the album may be called Words Are Dead for a reason). Multi-instrumentalist Peter Broderick (violin, banjo, mandolin, cello, viola, piano, saw, percussion) fleshes out Ringle's skeletal melodies with some baroque filigree. He may use traditional bluegrass instrumentation, but this is more chamber folk than hoedown. And it's lovely. There is a haunting, timeless quality in this music. These are songs that could come from 2006, or 1906, or 1806. It's front porch music, except when Broderick leans hard on his classical influences, and then it becomes front parlor music. The album is out September 19th. You might look for it if you're a fan of the new folk music of M. Ward, Jose Gonzalez, Iron and Wine, etc.

Various Artists – Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook, Vol. 1

The Old Town School of Folk Music is a Chicago institution, and they’ve been schooling kids on the folk music tradition for fifty years now. This compilation collects 23 classic American folk tunes that you know even if you don’t recognize the titles, and gives them a new spin courtesy of a batch of contemporary folk and alt-country artists – Jon Langford of the Mekons, John Stirrat of Wilco, Danny Barnes of the Bad Livers, Janet Bean of Freakwater, Robbie Fulks, Dan Zanes, and a whole bunch more. If the performances are uneven, the songs are uniformly great. They’re part of our collective national identity, and the themes – unrequited love, losing your job, the need to fill that hole in your soul – sound as relevant today as ever.

Maia Sharp – Fine, Upstanding Citizen

Our friend Emily heads up the Upper Arlington Arts Council, and this past Monday she was responsible for managing the Upper Arlington Arts Festival. Upper Arlington is a tony Columbus suburb where everyone plays golf and where 2% of the high school kids commit suicide when they don’t make it into the Ivy League school of their choice. The Chamber of Commerce does not advertise this fact. And because it is a functional, utilitarian, Midwestern kind of suburb, Art is typically thought of in terms of what would work well over the sofa. So I was curious to see what kind of magic Emily would unveil.

And she did wonderfully. There were many talented visual artists there, and the musical entertainment was provided by one Maia Sharp. I know Maia Sharp’s music. I have a couple of her albums. And I know her primarily as a songwriter’s songwriter, someone who contributes material to albums from Bonnie Raitt, The Dixie Chicks, Kim Richey, and the venerable, indestructible Cher.

So I listened. And she was superb – passionate, articulate, soulful. I was amazed. And then I went home, put on her latest album Fine, Upstanding Citizen, and was disappointed all over again. This album is Exhibit A on how bland, safe-as-milk production can ruin perfectly great songs. I read the lyric sheet, and recognized many of the songs I had just heard and loved in a live setting. But there was no passion, no energy. It was music designed to provide that perfectly innocuous accompaniment to paintings that go well over the sofa. I hate laid-back, soulless El Lay. Come to think of it, I hate Upper Arlington, too. No offense, Emily.

Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, Pink Moon

It used to be that Nick Drake was the closely guarded secret of a few thousand rabid music fans. Then that damned Volkswagen commercial came along and ruined it, and hundreds of thousands of vacuous indie scene kids discovered his music Thirty years after his death. He’s, like, so sad, man.

Better late than never, I suppose. He is sad. Clinically depressed even, which is what eventually did him in. He only left three albums. Two of them are baroque folk classics, full of intricate acoustic guitar fingerpicking interlaced with a lovely string quartet, and more full of hope and cautious optimism than his PR would have you believe. The third one is a stark, minimalist masterpiece, the sound of a man cracking up. It is the slightly altered, utterly fragile haiku of despair:

Know that I love you
Know I don’t care
Know that I see you
Know I’m not there

And then he wasn’t. He hasn’t been there since 1974. What’s left are a few dozen impossibly lovely songs. He was the Keats and Byron of the hippie generation. He’s been romanticized, mythologized, written about ad nauseum. If you want to be hip, you have to like him. In my unhip, balding, middle-aged book, it’s okay to like him simply because he made beautiful music.

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