Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The year in review so far: Folk Music

I love folk music and I think it's a shame that many people's understanding of this fantastic genre starts with Jack Johnson and ends with...Jack Johnson. There's so much more out there, but it can be hard to find.

So, in order to educate my readers (it sounds much more official than, "that one guy who accidentally came across this blog"), I am going to give some short review of the folk albums that I've purchased this year. All reviews are out of five stars.

Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (*****)

It's hard to describe how amazing this album is, or exactly what it's so absolutely captivating, but it has become one of my favorites for the year. It's actually just one man, Justin Vernon(?), who apparently went to his father's cabin in Wisconsin and brought some guitars along for the ride. Who knew that isolation could be such a great muse?

The music is fairly simple, generally using just guitar and vocals. Vernon's double-tracked voice, often in falsetto, is his strongest weapon, breaking every heart within range even when you can't understand what exactly he's talking about. The songs are soft and quiet, but carry an emotional weight. This is what loneliness sounds like, and it's beautiful.

Favorite Tracks: Re: Stacks, Skinny Love, Lump Sum

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (*****)

They hail from Seattle, but you might picture the members Fleet Foxes living in a cabin in the woods, making friends with the animals and wearing homemade clothes; yearning for a time when horses were the primary mode of transportation. I'm exaggerating, but it's rare to hear music this removed from popular culture. It sounds both as old as the hills, and like nothing you've heard before. Fleet Foxes have made some serious musical magic on their debut album.

The band, while still very young (the singer/songwriter is 21) have made a remarkably mature set of songs that channel the sounds of the Beach Boys, The Byrds, and CSNY (the list is incomplete, add your own references). Somehow, while Fleet Foxes remind me of so many familiar musical styles, they sound completely unique and just plain wonderful. The songwriting here focuses mostly on nature; painting pictures of tall grasses waiving and suns rising, while the gorgeous harmonies and beautiful music bring it all to life. This is one of the best albums of the year so far.

Favorite Tracks: White Winter Hymnal, Your Protector, He Doesn't Know Why

The Dodos - Visiter (****)

The Dodos are a drum/guitar duo very much the opposite of groups like The White Stripes, and The Black Keys. The make music frequently referred to as "freak folk," which I think is a fairly accurate genre title. I purchased "Visiter" (yes, that is spelled correctly) on a bit of a whim after hearing a few songs and hoping for the best; I was not disappointed. What I got was a surprising mix of well-crafted melodies and creative execution.

"Visiter" starts with with the lovely "Walking," lulling you with gently played guitar and banjo, before jumping into a more frantically paced set of tracks with pounding drums, acoustic guitar, and eager, sometimes shouted, vocals. The songs rarely go where you expect, pulling tricks on your ears and making your head spin. The melody holds everything together, so even when things get too over-the-top, you can still enjoy the ride. If you're looking for something a little on the experimental side of the folk genre, The Dodos might just hit the spot.

Favorite Tracks: Walking, Red and Purple, Winter

Whoa, that's a long post already. I'll give some brief reviews of last three albums in a couple days.


Matt J said...

Hey Chris, you should send me your picks that you think I'd enjoy. You know what I'll like.