Your Mama’s Folk
Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter
Love, Lust & the Open Halls of the Soul (Barsuk)
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.
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.
Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited
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.
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
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