Category Archives: Folk

“Place To Be”

moon
Nick Drake
Pink Moon, 1972

It’s been a downbeat week here, musically if not emotionally. For whatever reason, yesterday’s Sufjan selection put me in mind of Pink Moon, a record I play regularly for comfort and relaxation. Believe me, this one works wonders on an unquiet mind. Despite Nick Drake’s relentlessly moody songwriting, I can’t help but smile when I hear “Place To Be” or “Which Will” or (obviously) “Pink Moon.” The way recorded music ages — grows in reputation or diminishes in stature through the years — is endlessly fascinating to me. Never forget that this man died alone, penniless and near-forgotten. Or that with the passage of time, his small catalogue (and this album in particular) has taken its place among the most beloved and influential in singer-songwriter history. Such a triumphant outcome for a master of small gestures.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/02%20Place%20To%20Be.mp3]

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“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”

suf
Sufjan Stevens
Carrie & Lowell, 2015

After 10 years spent avoiding Sufjan Stevens like a plague (and the previous five in unhealthy admiration), here’s one that finally got me again. Everything I used to love about his music is still in evidence here. It’s a sad song, overly literate, with pretty finger-picky guitar and dramatic vocals — aesthetically, this is no sea change. But he’s not singing about saints, or states, or someone else this time. He’s singing about himself, and it’s a rawer, more honest presentation than we’ve heard before. Sufjan Stevens has sex? Sufjan Stevens does drugs? I wouldn’t have guessed either back in the days of Illinois or Seven Swans. There’s a vulnerability in this new work that helps make up for the old affectations. And Christ is still in there somewhere too, just like you knew he would be, harder to find than ever.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/10%20No%20Shade%20in%20the%20Shadow%20of%20The%20Cross.m4a]

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“The Golden Age”/”Morning”

beck
Beck
Sea Change, 2002
Morning Phase, 2014

It’s a languid-folk deathmatch on the blog today, kids. In one corner, weighing in at a scant 90 pounds, your favorite former slacker Beck and his “The Golden Age,” from much-lauded 2002 breakup album Sea Change. And in the other, weighing in at 95 pounds (it’s the hat) … uh, Beck again, this time with “Morning,” from the newly-Grammy’ed, semi-controversial Morning Phase. Though 12 years separate the two, musically not much has changed — even the glockenspiel lands with about as much force as it used to — and the fact that both these songs, both album openers, both feature glockenspiel pretty much says it all. Your preference may depend on which you hear first; I’m partial to “Morning” right now, but that may be because I haven’t had a decade to get tired of it. Both are accomplished, downbeat, beautiful and undeniably Beck. Their similarities say more about the 12 years he’s spent in stasis than talent or craft.

“The Golden Age”:

“Morning”:

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“Push the Sky Away”

cave
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Push the Sky Away, 2013

I certainly like Nick Cave, but I’ve never felt compelled to love him. I’m fascinated by a tendency I’ve noticed in his best work though: the ability to capture a beautiful notion — the idea of God, the thrill of falling in love, the aspiration of the self — before sentencing it to a slow, miserable death by melancholy. You hear the same principle at work in “Push the Sky Away.” Lyrically, this is motivational, no-limit, follow-your-dreams stuff — you’d almost expect to read these words in a self-help manual. Musically, of course, it’s a different story: dirge-like keys, atmospheric loops, a creepy children’s chorus. The effect is memorable — beautiful and spooky at all once — but sometimes you wanna tell the guy it’s okay to ease up.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/09%20Push%20the%20Sky%20Away.m4a]

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“Don’t Carry It All”

king
The Decemberists
The King is Dead, 2011

“We are all our hands and holders.” Would that it were true, right? Now I’m no Decemberists apologist — I generally object on lyrical grounds, finding Colin Meloy too precious for my blood about 80 percent of the time. But on a longer-than-expected drive from L.A. to Bakersfield to see an old friend in 2011, I needed something to take my mind off an impending breakup and “Don’t Carry It All” proved much-needed medicine. “A neighbor’s blessed burden within reason/Becomes a burden borne of all and one.” That’s a line I needed to hear then and an idea I still want to believe in, even when I’m not holding up my end of the bargain. The split happened a week later and I felt generally miserable for a few months, but then I got better. And like always, music was a big part of the recovery. This morning I was stuck at a light and needed something to take my mind off worrying about work. I grabbed a CD from the center console — a mix I’d made a few years back with a random name, “Saturday Songs” or something like that — and this was the first thing on it. I started skipping through the tracks and it soon became clear that these were the songs, the ones that helped pull me through a darker time in the not-too-distant past. That mix is the story of me moving on, and it started here.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20Don’t%20Carry%20It%20All.m4a]

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“Green Grow the Rushes”

rem
R.E.M.
Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985

I suppose song-for-song, Fables represents the slowest of early R.E.M. Certainly the darkest, the most mysterious. Perhaps even the most Southern, by which I mean it feels the most foreign to an American born elsewhere. It might also be the most inconsistent, but the highs are formidable (“Driver 8,” “Maps and Legends,” “Feeling Gravitys Pull”). Early R.E.M. holds a special place for me; the first five records make me nostalgic for a time and place I’m too young to remember, and there’s a sweetness to “Green Grow the Rushes” that feels eternal. It’s not hard to hear this music and imagine the world it came from, or to wish you knew it too.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/07%20Green%20Grow%20The%20Rushes.mp3]

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“Firecrackers”

marissa
Marissa Nadler
July, 2014

I’m not sure I fully comprehend “Firecrackers,” and in some ways I’m glad for that. It’s not for lack of curiosity — the part of me that finds the song fascinating would have a hard time saying no to more backstory. But generally speaking, any song where a woman alerts an attacker to her presence is going to give me the spooks, whether or not the sentiment is metaphorical. Maybe that says more about me than the song, I dunno. Wherever the truth lies, Marissa Nadler’s songwriting succeeds at unsettling; there are moments on July that make my hair stand on end no matter how many times I hear them. “Firecrackers” just happens to be the most sinister. You might be surprised at first to learn that Sunn O))) producer Randall Dunn handled production duties on this one. You’ll get over it pretty quickly.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/03%20Firecrackers.mp3]

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“More Yellow Birds”

sparklehorse
Sparklehorse
It’s a Wonderful Life, 2001

“More Yellow Birds” is, for me, the definitive Sparklehorse song from the definitive Sparklehorse album. Musically gorgeous, lyrically oppressive, childlike, beautiful and slow, sad but somehow still hopeful — all of the things Mark Linkous’ songs came to be known for, all in one place, perfected. It feels borne of a yearning, defensive posture he likely knew well given his history of severe depression. “Will my pony recognize my voice in hell?” — a question that might read as ridiculous delivered by any other songwriter — is par for the course in Linkous’ apocalyptic mind, like asking your wife if she brought in the mail. Crucially, it all seems to add up in the world of these songs; the instrumentation delicately embodies the artist’s concern. While he couldn’t save himself, as a listener and a fan I hope Linkous managed to find some measure of deliverance in his music.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/09%20More%20Yellow%20Birds.mp3]

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“Farther Up the Road”

VOL
Vigilantes of Love
To the Roof of the Sky, 1998

I’ll always love this band, this album and this song for the words. Veterans of the same Athens, GA scene that birthed R.E.M., Bill Mallonnee and his Vigilantes of Love were a staple of my Christian music diet in the mid-90s, when I’d come home with an armful of new CD’s and my parents would do their best to appear disinterested in the catch. Though VoL albums were sold in Christian bookstores, the dirty secret was that they didn’t have much in common with their peers. Mallonnee was far too literate to survive alongside the younger, goofier, more popular bands being hawked at the time. He was a real artist after all, not prone to easy answers or pat statements of faith. You can imagine how well this went over with the Evangelical gatekeepers of the day. “Farther Up the Road” sounded pretty damn remarkable to a sheltered 17-year-old kid. The ambiguity, the weary resignation, the poetry — these were not attributes typically associated with the faith of my childhood. This was something tougher, altogether more humane, and ultimately more lasting than the dreck that surrounded it. This was the real thing.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/15%20Farther%20Up%20the%20Road.m4a]

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“Alice”

tom waits - alice
Tom Waits
Alice, 2002

Tom Waits’ songs, as the man himself has identified, typically fall into one of three buckets — they’re either “bawlers,” “brawlers” or “bastards.” This adherence to form, this tacit nod to tradition, a willingness to identify one’s debt to and position in the Great American Songbook, is how we know Tom Waits, like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen before him, belongs in the canon. Or something. What I know is that “Alice,” a bawler if ever there was one, is a damn fine song. Ostensibly an outline of Lewis Carroll’s obsession with a certain young woman in Wonderland, the song skates the same thin ice as its narrator: knife-edged jazz ballad, tender pedophillic paen, suicidal mash note. So compelling it makes you feel for a guy who knows he’s being a creep. Just like Gershwin, right? Right? Wait, why are you making that face?

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20Alice.m4a]

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“The Swimming Song”

loudon
Loudon Wainwright III
Attempted Mustache, 1973

This is cheesy, but I’ll say it anyway: if you’ve never heard “The Swimming Song” before, it is my God’s-honest pleasure to make the introduction for you. Play it today and there’s a good chance you’ll remember it forever. As a cult-favorite folkie in the 1970s, Wainwright’s droll wit and breadth of subject matter got him pegged “the next Dylan,” but the mainstream couldn’t adapt. Today he’s best known as the father of Rufus, Martha and Lucy … and the guy who wrote “The Swimming Song” (by me anyway). So innocent and carefree you could play it for your kid, “Swimming” is a litany of youthful, nostalgic boasts set against an easy summer-banjo backdrop. For 2-3 minutes, wherever you are, no matter the time of year, you’ll swear it’s still summer at the swimming hole.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20The%20Swimming%20Song.m4a]

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“Lost Verses”

april
Sun Kil Moon
April, 2008

Time for some TBSYHAD #realtalk: I cried the first time I heard “Lost Verses” the whole way through. I was stuck in L.A. traffic on my way to work, nothing but time to kill, and decided to wait out the entire 10 minutes. Something happens near the end of the track — I won’t spoil it here — that flips the entire thing on its head and … God knows what was going on in my life at the time (I don’t remember now), but I broke down and started bawling right there on the freeway. Eventually I made it to work and did my best to act like nothing had happened. When I think about Mark Kozelek in 2014 — the cranky email interviews, the weird diss track aimed at less prominent musicians — I have to remind myself of the reason I ever cared in the first place. One time the guy wrote a song this good.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20Lost%20Verses.m4a]

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“Ghost of David”

Ghost_of_David
Damien Jurado
Ghost of David, 2000

I’m no musicologist, but I’m pretty sure “Ghost of David” only has two chords. They’re enough. When you’ve got a voice like Damien Jurado’s, simplicity is the highest virtue. The Seattle singer-songwriter has built his entire career – 13 solo albums and counting – on the discipline of less-is-more. While of late he’s been working in a full-band context with producer Richard Swift, many of the best songs in his catalogue feature little more than guitar and vocals. And rightfully so — this is a musician who commands attention even in the quietest moments.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/06%20ghost%20of%20david.mp3]

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“Italy”

akronfamily3
Akron/Family
Akron/Family, 2005

That mix though! Listeners who fear compression are advised to steer clear of Akron/Family’s 2005 debut album, though not for the usual reasons. Far from the typical “Loudness War” salvo where extreme manipulation is used to shove an outdated radio rap-rocker’s hot verse right-up-in-your-fucking-face, the production on A/F boosts the levels on songs that would otherwise sound intimate in a natural setting. With this approach, “Italy’s” quiets get loud and its louds approach deafening. Again, not for everybody, but there’s something to be said for way those boosted lead vocals grab the listener on the early verses. This kind of thing used to be called “freak-folk;” for our purposes, it’s simply The Best Song You’ll Hear All Day.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/04%20Italy.m4a]

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“Summer Noon”

Tweedy-Sukierae
Tweedy
Sukierae, 2014

After years of being derided for his “dad-rock” tendencies, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy has done the critics one better and recorded an album with his son. The result, a sprawling double record called “Sukierae,” is the most interesting music Tweedy’s made since the criticism started. We’re really coming full circle here. Many of the tracks share similarities with Loose Fur, his great mid-aughts side project with Jim O’Rourke and Glenn Kotche. Others sound like folky outtakes from “Mermaid Avenue” or recent Wilco albums, as you might expect. The difference is Spencer Tweedy’s drumming, which lacks Kotche’s precision but shares his experimental tendencies. Fittingly, dad records the drums at near-demo quality and builds the music around them to match. Plaintive ballad “Summer Moon” best sums up the album’s gentle melancholy.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/2-03%20Summer%20Noon.mp3]

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“Intuition”

feist2
Feist
The Red Demos, 2001
The Reminder, 2007

Something a little different today: a look at Leslie Feist’s “Intuition,” from demo to completion. The original, pulled from 2001’s unreleased The Red Demos, is my favorite of all her recordings: a smoky, back-room lament whose plodding pace and spare instrumentation fit the defeated mood perfectly. Ironically, the final version — released on 2007’s breakout The Reminder — is even more sparse, stripped of everything but hometape-quality acoustic guitar and some light studio touches on the middle bridge and outro. The sad, subtle integrity of the song holds up no matter which version you’re listening to, a nice reminder of the artist’s skill as a balladeer.

Demo:

Studio:

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“One Too Many Mornings”

Bob Dylan_The times they are a changin
Bob Dylan
The Times They Are a-Changin’, 1964

There’s so much damn talk surrounding Dylan’s every gesture that it’s easy to lose sight of why anyone cared in the first place. That in the early days, when he wasn’t trying to convince the media he’d run away from the circus or been raised by wolves or whatever, what made him special was his ability to conjur a moment and keep you there. This is one of the most immediate examples. It’s evening, he’s home, and if he isn’t alone yet he’d rather be. There’s been an argument, both sides are exhausted, and the outcome is inevitable. Who hasn’t known this frustration before, this restlessness? Who hasn’t been in a relationship like this, romantic or otherwise? And who, for that matter, has written a better song?

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/04%20One%20Too%20Many%20Mornings.mp3 ]

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