Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Freak Folk

Freak Folk

With key additions finally making it to the Rhapslibrary, I can now talk about the Freak Folk (in some circles also being referred to as "Psych folk") movement that the music world's been 'abuzz' about since last year. We left off yesterday with the psychedelic (and unclassified) folk music of the 1960's and 1970's, but that doesn't get us all the way there yet.

In the 1990's, there arose a new underground folk ethic that was both a reaction to the louder underground music that was prevalent at the time, and to folk music's tendency to take itself too seriously. Dubbed by Adam Green as Anti-Folk, the artists included Green's (and Kimya Dawson's) The Moldy Peaches, early Beck, Calvin Johnson, and even Ani DiFranco, sharing an affinity for melding folk traditions with punk ethics, penning ironic and sometimes nonsensical lyrics. [Much of the early Elephant 6 collective recordings (specifically early Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal,) it should be noted, reflected some of this trend as well and are of influence.] Coupling this with parts of the alt-country movement (Uncle Tupelo, Freakwater, and especially Will Oldham's version of Americana) and a steady diet of the anti- and psychedelic folk from the 1960's & 70's, young artists began a trend in the 2000's that is now verging on exploding (for indie standards, it has already exploded.) It's permeating into the mainstream with movie soundtracks (Iron & Wine's contributions to Garden State and In Good Company) and, of course, television's The O.C. (Sufjan Stevens.) While the albums by Iron & Wine (Our Endless Numbered Days,) Sufjan Stevens (Seven Swans,) Devendra Banhart (Rejoicing in the Hands,) Joanna Newsom (The Milk-Eyed Mender) and Animal Collective (Sung Tongs) each have garnered an album of the year claim for 2004 from different critic's lists. It's hard to find a credible critic's list for 2004 that didn't have one or more of these releases in it's top 10.

Devendra Banhart, 23, is one of the main reasons the phrase 'freak folk' came into being. Devandra (which means "king of gods" in Hindi) sings like a 1930's bluesman with a voice that cracks with tension... combined with this off-kilter visual lyrics it makes for a non-traditional folk experience, hence 'freak.' It's achingly beautiful, though, and full of mystery - much like his life story. For someone so young, he's already spent years wandering and homeless, giving more levity to his earnestness. Never shy about naming his influences, Banhart even coerced his idol Vashti Bunyan out of seclusion to sing on a song "Rejoicing in the Hands." Banhart, to cement his freak folk royalty status, put together the first and (so far) only definitive compilation of the genre with the release Golden Apples of the Sun (which you can listen to in it's entirety here)

Joanna Newsom, also 23, is another 'freak' of folk. A self-proclaimed folk harpist (as opposed to classically trained harpist,) her songwriting incorporates elements of indie pop, Appalachian music, avant-garde modernism and is.. well... quirky. Her child-like, helium-flavored voice can either sound soft and sweet or like she’s punching the words out - with a yowl - and more then any other freak folk artist, it creates a polar division - you either love it or hate it. I sit on both sides, refuting my own statement. I'm both drawn and repelled at the same time. She's almost obsessively adored by her fans, and that speaks volumes right there.

Animal Collective interweave plenty of acid-laced Brian Wilson harmonies and wackiness into their brand of folk. The band is composed of Avey Tare (aka David Porter) and Panda Bear(aka Noah Lennox) and established their unique brand of folk in New York City in 2000. What followed was a flush of frustrating but captivating rush of recordings, finally leading to their fabulous release, Here Comes the Indian (Paw Tracks, 2003.) It brought the listener to the crossroads of psychedelic, noise, and folk music, with it's acid-fried psychosis, crop-circle field recordings and, at times, absolute chaotic abandon. 2004's Sung Tongs (Fat Cat,) reigned in some of the crazed chaos, and, while still challenging, is quite accessible. It's an odd thrill to find yourself singing along to something that initially feels like it has no structure. This year's EP release (Prospective Hummer, Fat Cat,) continues in the same vein and finds them employing the services of (idol and influence) Vashti Bunyan on a song ("It's You.")

Both Iron & Wine and Sufjan Stevens are, in many interpretations, left out of the 'freak folk' genre, instead being lumped into the more traditional 'neo-folk' classificiation. Sam Beam (Iron & Wine) is Florida singer/songwriter whose beautiful lo-fi recordings found their way to SubPop, who signed him and asked for more. Beam sent two albums worth more of his whispered acoustic gems and it was trimmed to one album (the beautiful The Creek Drank The Cradle,) and an EP (The Sea and The Rhythm.) He then transitioned fluidly from the lo-fi sounds of his home to the hi-fi studio sound for, Our Endless Numbered Days, which came out last year to accolades and movie soundtracks. His Woman King EP (still not in Rhapsody - ??) is decidedly less 'freak-folk' sounding, more blues-oriented, which is at least partly due to the further involvement of Brian Deck (Red Red Meat, Califone.)

Sufjan Stevens latest release, Illinois (on the top of many best of the year so far lists,) is definitely less freak-folk sounding then previous releases (as it owes as much to classic rock as it does progressive folk,) but still is full of his soulful folk epics. A flurry of disco strings cannot hide what lies beneath. A singer/songwriter/ multi-instrumentalist, Stevens continues his 'states project' having already released his opus to home state Michigan (Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State, Asthmatic Kitty, 2003.) Even though he uses loops, it's abated with lightly strummed guitars and stark banjo picking giving it a rustic northern folk aesthetic. Whether or not it's 'freak folk' is up for interpretation, but for our purposes here, he's in with the freaks.

Speaking of freaks, Josephine Foster certainly qualifies as one (it's a term of endearment here, folks.) Foster is a part of the freak folk bands Born Heller and Children's Hour as well has working as a solo artist. She's most often compared to 60's UK folkie Shirley Collins (who you can listen to here.) "Earthen hymns, cosmic madrigals, flapper blues and acid folk are sewn into one luminescent patch" on her solo recordings. It's at times disturbing and wonderous, definitely not for the faint of heart. Truly puts the freak in freak folk. Likewise, Antony & The Johnsons can also be freakish. Lumped into freak folk in part because of Antony's association with Devendra Banhart (Devendra lends vocals to a song on their latest release,) it's also due to the vocal style which is a warbled histrionic affair. The track "The Lake," a musical adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's poem of the same name, is a chilling piano/cello/guitar-accompanied lament that appeared as well on Banharts compilation, Golden Apples of the Sun. Antony's latest release, I Am a Bird Now, is at the top of many best of the year lists so far.

Freak Folk Beginnings

Freak Folk Flies High (SFGate, Thursday, April 14, 2005)
The Next American Movement (Paste Magazine, #14)
Freak Folk's Very Own Pied Piper (NY Times, December 12, 2004)
Devendra Banhart can't listen to his own album (but you should) (Splendid Magazine)
Sly, silly with more than a touch of poetry (MSNBC, June 22, 2005)

tags: , , ,

1 comment:

drake leLane said...

Freak Folk

* "Rejoicing in the Hands" - Devendra Banhart (with Vashti Bunyan)
* "Who Could Win A Rabbit" - Animal Collective
* "Fever Dream" - Iron & Wine
* "Crackerjack Fool" - Josephine Foster
* "Angel Band" - Bob Drake
* "To Be Alone With You" - Sufjan Stevens
* "(Throw On) The Hazard Lights" - The Dirty Projectors
* "I Want Wind To Blow" - Microphones
* "You May Be Blue" - Vetiver
* "Look At What The Light Did Now" - Little Wings
* "It's You" - Animal Collective (with Vashti Bunyan)
* "I Want To" - Born Heller
* "Let It Rain" - Currituck Co.
* "Circles of Sorrow" - Jennifer Gentle
* "Alley Flowers" - Jolie Holland
* "Hammers Sitting Still" - BR. Danielson
* "Tea" - Charalambides
* "Simon Is Stronger Than Us" - Angels Of Light
* "Crumbling Land" - Avey Tare
* "Pony Apprehension" - Holopaw
* "Sweet Fever" - Scout Niblett
* "Before And Again" - Akron/Family
* "Little Boy" - The Children's Hour
* "Apples, I'm Home" - Adam Green
* "The Lake" - Antony and the Johnsons