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Folk Yeah

Meditations on the state of the new folk music

By Josh Potter

Au

Verbs (Aagoo)

There’s a moment somewhere in the space between “All My Friends” and “Are Animals,” where Au fans are either enlisted or passed over. The choir of voices, who had just offered an inscrutable cumulous incantation, begins to clap to a tinny banjo riff and you’re either on the bus, begging the Portland quartet to let you do anything—shake your keys onstage every night—or watching it coast by to the corner they’ve carved out of this New Weird America.

The face of the new primitive is a gentle one, and one that might look more familiar than you’d expect. A few years back, Devendra Banhart sent folk music into a tailspin of flamboyant, joyful indiscretion, but now, bands like Au are popping up in more domestic digs, equally prepared to shuck and wail. And that’s probably why it’s so infectious. The closest the band come to conventional pop tunesmanship is “rr vs. d,” but even here the bump and grind belies the band’s teacherly appearance. At the band’s core is Luke Wyland, a talented pianist, who stitches melodies with a thin enough thread count to let in light, but thick enough to support ribbons of clarinet, organ, percussion, and, of course, abundant vocals. Verbs is an album of simple celebrations, and proof that we’ve made it to the other side of the lo-fi revolution, where the scope of an idea no longer needs to be meager in the face of modest means.

Make a Rising

Infinite Ellipse and Head With Open Fontanel (High Two)

In a similar sense, the opening moments of Philly-based Make a Rising’s latest have the sort of energy that draws you in and makes you want to sign on the line; it’s only after a few bars, though, that you’ll realize you have very little to offer this mob. In terms of scope, this one might be the most ambitious offering the art-folk world’s produced this year. Brothers Justin and Jesse Moynihan write vast, rollicking compositions that recall the experience of shaking your head upside-down, staring at the sun, and then reciting all the nonsense syllables that come to mind, while watching the telephone poles tick by on the car ride home from school. Each song on the vaguely conceptual album plays like the soundtrack to some forgotten fairytale: Zappa-esque renderings of Peter and the Wolf that crawl cautiously from Steve Reich’s Cave. Adept at all the Brian Wilson stuff without having to flaunt it, the brothers command a microsymphony in and out of diabolical passages. Echo chambers ambush unsuspecting lyrics and sweep them off to looping codas where they cycle long enough to get lodged in your head before collapsing in on themselves and spiraling off to reprise a theme started some songs back. Pairing song titles like “Bradford’s Big Boatride [Beyond (The Dawn)]” with lyrics like “What do I know?/Nothing, nothing” it’s clear that the band has surrendered that nihilistic, post-psychedelic sense that the experience of their music isn’t worth much, but with cosmic giggles like “How’s ’Bout a Love Supreme,” they prove they haven’t also shed the requisite humor for tempering spiritual gravity. In a word, it’s like they’ve ridden the kitsch of anti-folk back to another prevalent childhood experience: wonder.

Lights

Lights (Language of Stone)

Let’s get something straight be fore we proceed: Brooklyn band Lights do indeed have a member named Wizard Smoke. A San Francisco-born projection artist, she is, more importantly, one third of the vocal trifecta that haunts the band’s eponymous record. As spiritually driven as the aforementioned acts, Lights trade ecstatic celebration for dirging meditation. If psychedelic music can be considered “traditional” or “conventional,” then here it is. Stark, repetitive bass lines anchor meandering guitars that are consistently dolled up in vintage effects. All this, though, is background for the smoky, subterranean vocals, which often ride pulsing toms to caterwauling climax. In their lyric sensibility, the band clearly nod to Vashti Bunyan, the fairy Godmother of altered folk, but their brand of pastoral paganism is far more windswept. With an ethos that is undeniably NYC, Lights imagine what the Velvet Underground would have sounded like if Andy Warhol had cloned Nico twice over and John Cale had kicked Lou Reed’s jive ass.

Castanets

City of Refuge (Asthmatic Kitty)

Ray Raposa, Ray Raposa, Ray Raposa: Now, try and say it five times fast. Ray Raposa is Castanets, and castanets might be the last instrument you’d expect to hear on any of Raposa’s records. Folk music has always been the documentation of a place and a time, but Raposa has taken this principle to a new conceptual level through immersive musical experience. Having finished a tour by boat through the Intracoastal Waterways, he decided to hole up in a motel in Overton, Nev., northeast of Las Vegas. City of Refuge is the dark, lonesome document. Spacious, high-plains guitar interludes sweep through honky-tonk crooners. The drawl and twang are abundant, yet drenched in analog delay. Owing to Raposa’s roots in electronic experimentation, the album is cinematic like a more depressive Ry Cooder playing the soundtrack to a more sunburned and thirsty Paris, Texas. Sufjan Stevens’ and Jana Hunter’s contributions function more as friendly consolation than musical collaboration without ever crossing into tear-in-my-beer sentimentality.

It’s funny: Dizzy Gillespie once said that all music was really folk music because he’d never heard a horse play music. Well, if ever a horse sat down with his guitar after a long slog across the desert, the songs he’d write might sound a bit like this.


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