Sometimes I start a post going on about how I don’t really listen to a particular genre much, but I decided to write about it due to bullying or some other reason. It is a bit different today, because I actually listen to folk music fairly often, be it freak folk, indie folk, folk rock, whatever the latest meme folk is, and sometimes going so far as to listen to actual traditional folk music.
So I listen to folk often, but I have never written an entire post about it. I’d suggest that it is because, while I like folk music, I don’t have much to say about it. We’re talking about a genre in which lyrics play a very important role (often at the expense of any interesting musical decisions), described by somebody who simply doesn’t listen to lyrics at all. However, with folk as with other lyrical genres like hip-hop, I’m willing to make a small exception. We’ll see what there is to say.
Sun Kil Moon (Mark Kozelek) is definitely a bus I’ve missed in the past, but I’m glad I ran into him now. I’ve listened to Among the Leaves and Benji so far, and I have to say he is one of the comfiest, most peaceful folk artists I have heard. The warm tone comes from the fact that his music is almost exclusively acoustic guitar and vocals. It’s very raw, and that leads into the other curiosity about his music: lyrically it’s actually very sad. Benji in particular is a set of reflections on his life growing up in Masillon, Ohio (an old industrial town situated near Akron, a place that I happen to have spent a short time living in). The bad economic situation in the Midwest colors a lot of his songs. While I can’t necessarily say he had a rough time growing up, it is clear that a lot of the people around him did, and it affected him. Micheline is a good example — very peaceful song, very sad song at the same time. A great deal of his music is like that, although he experiments often. Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes has a more aggressive tone and even a kind of “alternative” bent toward the end; still nonetheless a sad song, lyrically. Kozelek has this habit of naming people in his songs which has a personalizing effect that other bands with a nostalgic focus sometimes miss. In their defense, there is a tradeoff: if you don’t name a name, the song could apply to anybody and anything; if you do, the story is Kozelek’s and it is a matter of empathy if you find something in it. I’ll recommend one last song, this time off Among the Leaves, before we move on: Song For Richard Collopy, dedicated to his departed guitar repairmen.
Bon Iver is one of the most well-known contemporary folk artists, so I’ll focus on his latest release, 22, A Million. With the falsetto vocals and heavy use of digital effects, it couldn’t be more different from Sun Kil Moon. In terms of Bon Iver’s general sound across his career, it isn’t a complete departure (he has had songs with the properties of this album before, such as Hinnom, TX), but he has definitely put more emphasis on the pop, almost RnB aspect of his music. Songs like 8 (circle) and 29 #Strafford APTS simple ARE what alternative RnB sounds like: chill, slow, flowing introspection. 715 – CR∑∑KS and 21 M◊◊N WATER are more along the lines of the new school “ambient” electronic music (by which I mean all music under the name ambient that “trve kvlt” ambient fans don’t consider to be authentic) that is pretty popular these days.
Without spoiling the whole album, I have to say that he did a good job producing a variety of tracks. I haven’t found there to be a particular killer track on the album, nor that the album even has high or low points. It’s simply a solid electronic/folk/pop/whatever album, and there isn’t much out there to directly compare it to. Incidentally, while Bon Iver was working on 22, A Million, he made an appearance on James Blake’s newest album in I Need A Forest Fire. I find the song to be a kind of “logical conclusion” to the direction that 22, A Million is headed, and I would certainly enjoy hearing more like that. James Blake has a certain degree of minimalism in his production, whereas a lot of the songs on Bon Iver’s album have quite a bit going on. It puts a burden on the “what are you trying to accomplish” question for Bon Iver that Blake simply doesn’t find himself having to answer as often. However, there is no doubt that there are more surprises on 22, A Million than on Blake’s latest release.
I listened to Julien Baker’s album Sprained Ankle a month or two ago and I think it’s terrific. It’s got variety, it has some nice emo aesthetics (perhaps a trend in indie/folk these days?), and it gets better and better as you progress through it. Everybody Does is a good demonstration of those aesthetics — you can almost overlay things like overdrive and twinkly guitar effects in your head and hear a song behind the song.
But there’s something unique about Julien that I like even more than the tone or style of her songs. She combines earnest music with earnest Christianity. What am I talking about? Contemporary Christian music is earnest, but it is notoriously derivative. Even in the socially networked environment we have today where exposure to music and production of music has never been more accessible, all the hip new Christian artists sound like they’re copying music from three years ago. It doesn’t need to be like this — Julien Baker is the proof. On the other side of the equation, there are non-Christian artists (and some Christian ones) that include Christian imagery in their songs, but because it doesn’t have any transcendental meaning to them, it doesn’t carry the effect that a deeply personal song like Rejoice does¹. Rejoice is the first song I heard by Julien, and I wasn’t quite paying attention at first, but by the end, I had come to realize “woah, that wasn’t a normal song.” It is just really rare to hear an up & coming artist making good music and being unafraid to write a song about God. She isn’t ever going to get airtime on a radio station like Z88.3. She is on her own when it comes to the established Christian music industry, but she made an album like this anyway.
I think Sprained Ankle plays well when listened to in the order she arranged it (and I ought to have said the same about Sun Kil Moon above), so I won’t spoil any more of it. Check it out.
Pinegrove brings a country-tinged sound to folk. On top of that, I hear traces of the chords and melodic composition used in emo and pop-punk. I have listened to their first album, Cardinal, and I really enjoy the unique confluence of sounds they have. Let’s take Cadmium as an example. First of all, is that the loud-quiet dichotomy I hear them taking advantage of? You don’t say. Second, there isn’t really that much going on in this song, but it still manages to be dynamic and interesting. I hear two guitars, one bass, drums, and vocals, and for the most part the song is repeating a motif the whole way through. As much as I am a fan of volume dynamics, I also really appreciate making big things out of small songs. I said the same thing about Cymbals Eat Guitars back in June. Old Friends is another good one. I’ve listened to a small variety of country music in the past few years out of curiosity toward one of America’s most popular genres, and Pinegrove’s at least quasi-country album is what I have liked the most so far. In Old Friends as well as New Friends, the album closer, Pinegrove is doing something to be different from country that I can’t quite place my finger on. My best assessment is that they are a pop-punk band that uses country elements. At any rate, Cardinal is only a 30 minute album, and I recommend just listening to the whole thing.
Up front, I will admit that I am not the biggest fan of Chelsea Wolfe. Her music is a “dark” folk, and to me a better description would be “soft sludge”. The thing is, if it wasn’t clear when I referred to sludge as an “aural volcano” some years back, sludge loses some of its luster when you soften it. A lot of the positive reactions to Wolfe presumably focus on what she added to folk. My perspective that she takes something away from sludge clearly colors how I feel about her music.
Her music isn’t bad, though. She is fairly experimental, but a good baseline example of her sound is Mer off her album Apokalypsis (Ἀποκάλυψις if you want to be canonical). Obviously this is a pretty different sound than the rest of the folk artists I’ve brought up in this post. It is dark, ominous, her vocals are ghostly, and the tone is actually kind of aggressive. She has songs that are less aggressive but no less eerie, like The Wasteland. And on the other end of the spectrum, she has some fairly heavy stuff like Carrion Flowers (probably the closest she gets to actual sludge). There are definitely many times on a given Chelsea Wolfe album where you’d question if you’re listening to folk music. Judging by her popularity, most people don’t agree with my complaints from above. She’s definitely worth a listen to find out where you fall on the issue.
¹ Apropos, I have never found Sufjan Stevens compelling, even though he allegedly doesn’t have the problem I am describing. Go figure.