12 August 2006

folk everybody

As you may have guessed from the post prior to this, the week since I came back from my holiday has been very stressful. Yes, there's the lost luggage which remains unfound, but there's also the jetlag, the persistent coughing, the catching-up with everyone and everything else, not to mention work, which brings me once again to India where I am right now. So I have been making a conscious effort to calm my nerves, partly by listening to folk music or the many rock varieties of it anyway. Here are three from a playlist I call Folk Everybody!

thin blue flame : josh ritter
click here or on the image below to listen. a whopping 9m 38s

This is the most impressive track from The Animal Years, the latest album by Idaho native Josh Ritter. It becomes a commendable work if you take it for what it is and look past the obvious influences from the more familiar names in the genre. In short, it lacks originality, but is worth a listen anyway. Ritter has been compared to Dylan and Springsteen, not just for the way he sounds but also for the maturity of his perspective on the themes he explores. The Animal Years is a politically charged album, a sharp (thanks to a weathered voice that also sounds like he would knock your teeth out at a slight provocation) and highly literate jab at things that make you throw your hands up and wonder how the world fucked up. "I just felt so angry; I felt like something was on my back," he told an early interview with Billboard, when asked why his new album differed from his prior autobiographical work. "These are a collection of songs about confusion and about where this country is going. It's not as much a political record, but just a diary of things I observe, how divisive everyone is, no matter whose side you're on." I just have to say, however, that there are tracks where, musically and vocally, he channels Grant McLennan more than anyone else. The intro to Girl in The War is practically torn from the same chord sheet as McLennan's One By One. Where Ritter excels is in his songwriting, and you can get a load of how much he has to say in Thin Blue Flame, a surreal vision of what becomes of the universe when its inhabitants and creator stop giving a damn. My favorite line: Now the wolves are howling at our door/Singing 'bout vengeance like it's the joy of the Lord/Bringing justice to the enemies not the other way round. At nearly 10 minutes, you can call the song overstretched and contrived, but it intrigued me on first listen and it interests me up to now. Try to see how much of it you can handle.

i got nobody waiting for me : m. craft
click here or on the image below to listen. 3m 48s

The problem with the one-act-one-guitar route is that there is very little room for innovation. Here's a theory with no scientific backing whatsoever, because to have one would require reading a good sampling of album and artist reviews since Mr Zimmerman became the benchmark of the genre since, oh, 1963? The theory is: Music critics make more artist comparisons when they review works by acoustic singer-songwriters than by full-on rock bands or even pop newcomers. Count the number of comparisons in this review of Silver and Fire by M. Craft (it stands for Martin). I counted six. Six! Now count the same in this review of St Elsewhere by the breakthrough duo Gnarls Barkley. How many? Just three. What accounts for the difference is rather obvious: How many ways can a solo act express the same thought or emotion with the same minimal instruments? Not a lot, I suppose, but then again, does it really matter? In this song, Craft, a London-residing Australian, pays homage to the late Elliott Smith, with his guitar as crisp and his vocals as wispy as Smith's in Between The Bars. In the end, what matters is whether the song, album or artist speaks to you or not, and in this case – in my case – Craft is a good companion indeed.

duet for guitars #1 : m. ward
click here or on the image below to listen. 2m 15s

Now here's a brave take on folk innovation. M. Ward (it's Matt this time) describes his own work as "guitar music," and in this song, guitar is what it's all about. It's a short instrumental piece that's equal parts embracing, paranoid, acerbic and spooky. The parallel playing of notes high and low from the middle toward the end of the song is almost grating to the ears, but it also plays with your senses and conjures up a dream populated by bad characters. And no, I'm not taking anything. I don't have an M. Ward album – this song comes from the excellent compilation Matador At Fifteen, referring to the 15th anniversary of the venerable indie label – but the three songs of his that I have are enough for me to put him in the genre-busting category. Sweethearts on Parade starts off like an intro to an electronica track, until the strums of an acoustic guitar come in and his near-falsetto voice croons old-school style. Four Hours in Washington starts grunge-like, until a flamenco-inspired guitar breaks in, followed by successive infusions of deep percussion, trumpets, cymbals and piano. It's confusing. It's weird. It's an acid-and-base solution that stirs you up and can either rip your guts or blow your brains out. In other words, it's good for you.

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