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Not Your Mama’s Folk

By Mike Hotter

Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter

Like, Love, Lust & the Open Halls of the Soul (Barsuk)

After a cameo that almost stole the album from Sunn O))) and Boris on their 2006 collaboration Altar, Jesse Sykes, Phil Wandscher and their cosmic alt-country band have come into their own with their third album. Looking like a postpunk Emmylou Harris and singing with the bruised soul of Marianne Faithfull and Sandy Denny, the upstate-New York-bred, Seattle-based Sykes fronts a band who bring a late-’60s sheen to each of her brooding meditations on life and love. But this is no exercise in nostalgia—this is folk-rock for the 21st century. Along with songs that owe sonic fealty to usual suspects like Townes Van Zandt and Neil Young, rockers like “You Might Walk Away” and “I Like the Sound” bring out a dangerous and mysterious edge in Sykes’ voice. Sykes drops Zen koans like “I was born to be loved/In the golden age of chatter” and “Those floating clouds on the ridge/Are hungry ghosts in waiting,” like a psychedelic Yoda jamming on the stage of the old Avalon Ballroom. Phil Wandscher, a founding member of Whiskeytown, shines throughout with tasteful lead guitar accompaniment, getting to out-jam Ryan Adams’ Cardinals on the closing rave-up of the album’s best song, “Station Grey.” A strong album from start to finish, this offering breaks the Sweet Hereafter out of the confines of alt-country and into the forefront of straight-up independent rock & roll.

Rafter

10 Songs (Asthmatic Kitty)

This unassuming gem manages to be a wonder of pop songsmith and arranging smarts while maintaining an alluring patina of mystery. The 10 songs are awash in the delight of musical sounds. Lyrics dart in and out of clarity as the instrumental tracks themselves define the prevailing moods, moving easily from melancholy to celebration. Rafter Roberts has played a role in the music and recordings of a host of bands (Pinback, Black Heart Processional, the Album Leaf, Castanets), many of whom have also passed through his San Diego studio, which is where he slowly brought these songs to life some eight years ago. With the exception of horns and violin, Rafter played and sang everything himself. Though suffused with sad beauty, none of the songs wallow in darkness; rather they feel all the more real and human-scale because of the breadth of the emotional experience.

—David Greenberger

Various Artists

The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited (Shout! Factory)

Having come back to life 10 years ago, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music is proving as persistent a force now as it was a half-century ago, when the Anthology was a six-record set collecting ancient recordings of folk songs—commercial recordings aimed at rural markets, and featuring such performers as Mississippi John Hurt, Dock Boggs, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Uncle Dave Macon.

Bob Dylan was fascinated by this set; so were Dave Van Ronk, Roger McGuinn and many others who, after obsessive listening, would go on to shape the folk music boom of the 1960s.

The question for producer Hal Willner was how those songs might be interpreted by an array of contemporary singers. Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Richard Thompson, Marianne Faithfull and Geoff Muldaur are among those tapped for the three concerts (London, New York and Los Angeles) from which the material for these two CDs and single DVD were drawn.

The answer proves the wisdom of Smith’s project—and the enduring legacy of songs that burrowed deeply into our unconscious. Take “The Butcher’s Boy,” sung in a 1928 recording by Buell Kazee on Smith’s Anthology, later covered by Joan Baez and the Clancy Brothers—and, on this new set, Elvis Costello. He takes a straightforward but intense approach to this relentless lament, wrapping the timeless agony of this story in his familiar growl. It works, just as it works when Muldaur rocks out on “K.C. Moan,” which got a more subdued performance by the Memphis Jug Band in the original anthology.

But it’s not all that straightforward. Trombonist Roswell Rudd, who defies categorization, teams with Sonic Youth on “Dry Bones”—not the song where the bones are connected and gonna walk around, but an older, sterner number that Rudd and company turn into an inspiring cacophony, a wonderful swirl of sound punctuated with Rudd’s playing and singing.

“Uncle Bunt” Stephens, a champion fiddler, recorded “Sail Away Lady” in 1926; here it gets an enhanced instrumental ensemble featuring Van Dyke Parks at the piano and the Mondrian String Quartet, recorded at London’s Meltdown Festival. Two years later, Parks appeared at a Harry Smith tribute event at UCLA, this time with the Greene String Quartet and bassist Percy Heath, who are among the backing for Pere Ubu’s David Thomas singing “Fishing Blues,” this amazing confluence of musicians turning Henry Thomas’s plaintive number into a lively, angry anthem.

You’ll see that one on the DVD, along with well-chosen highlights from what’s on the CDs. And there are a few bonuses, not least of which is a cameo by the Folksmen (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) singing “Old Joe’s Place” from A Mighty Wind.

There’s also a bonus documentary DVD with an engaging feature about the life and work of Harry Smith, as well as examples of Smith’s filmmaking (he hand-colored animations, frame by frame) set to original music by Philip Glass and others (and Glass is on hand to introduce his material).

Other Harry Smith tributes included a 1997 tribute concert issued on a single CD and a two-disc set of what would have been Smith’s Anthology, volume four, and they’re important additions to any Smithophile’s collection. But this set may be most important in the way that it integrates those classic songs into contemporary performances, keeping the flame amid ever-mightier winds.

—B.A. Nilsson


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