New folk bursting from other genres

'Non-movement' feeds a hunger for honest emotion

Pop Music

August 22, 2004|By Susan Carpenter

Maybe it's just good, old-fashioned reactionary-ism -- the natural byproduct of a culture that's been saturated and subsequently weighed down by too much self-obsessed hip-hop and shrieking, aggressive rock.

But a softer, gentler side of music is coming to the fore, one that's as traditional as it is contemporary. Call it the new folk.

More of a shared sensibility than a formalized genre or movement, it's being woven together by a growing collection of young artists from strains of bluegrass and jazz, country and blues and even vaudeville into stripped-down songs that sound strangely outside the present era.

Unwittingly nudged into the light by plaintive singer-songwriters like Cat Power, this new folk, or avant-folk as it's sometimes called, is now being propelled by a diverse crop of artists. Singing spooky Americana with a quivering Marc Bolan spin, Devendra Banhart is often hailed as new folk's vanguard. Other male artists such as Sufjan Stevens and Iron & Wine are also getting a lot of attention for their modern takes on traditional music, but it's the lesser-known female artists who seem to be pushing folk beyond its acoustic guitar and banjo boundaries.

From the haunting and honey-voiced Jolie Holland to the Victorian throwback sister act Cocorosie to the mythologically minded harpist Joanna Newsom and yodeler extraordinaire Dawn McCarthy of Faun Fables, these artists are taking folk music in bold new directions.

But don't call them folk musicians (even though many of them play acoustic instruments and cover traditional songs). And don't call them a scene (even though most of them know, or at least know of, one another).

'We're all human'

"People say 'folk' a lot, but it's so meaningless. What does 'folk' mean? It means 'human.' I hope we're all human," said Holland, 28, a sort of Appalachian jazz singer whose voice draws frequent comparisons to those of Billie Holiday and Norah Jones.

A San Francisco artist by way of Houston, New Orleans and Vancouver, British Columbia, the self-taught multi-instrumentalist started racking up kudos a couple of years ago with her album Catalpa. An unpolished but affecting collection of modern-day mountain music demos, the record was originally distributed among friends, then sold at shows and online, eventually doing so well that Holland said she was able to live off the record's sales.

Anti-, an Epitaph Records boutique label that is home to Tom Waits, re-released Catalpa last fall, following it with Escondida, Holland's spit-shined continuation on the same theme, this spring.

"I think it's a cultural case of eating too many bagels. People understand that for something to be interesting, there has to be yin with the yang," Holland said. "Artists who are trying to make work that is actually meaningful to people, you can tell that they've heard too much straight-ahead, white-flour music, so they're just trying to do something that's more organic and alive."

Indeed, the culture does seem ripe for the more sincere style of music that Holland and the others are making -- and not just as a counterpoint to the harder-edged rap and rock that's dominated the charts of late. As in the '60s, when folk music experienced unprecedented commercial popularity, we are living in times of unrest. Through simple melodies, and lyrics that are emotionally honest and evocative, new folk artists are trying to get back to basics.

"The songs were natural like dreams. We dreamt in our own language and they were reflective of the past, perhaps some nostalgic homage to early American music," said Bianca Casady, 22, who with sister Sierra, 23, forms Brooklyn-based Cocorosie.

With its distant, megaphone-like vocals and echoey piano, La Maison de Mon Reve, the duo's debut on Touch & Go this past spring, could almost be mistaken for a field recording of a backwoods revival meeting. It has a scratchy tone and is riddled with religious lyrics and found sounds from unlikely places, i.e., farm toys from France, where the album was recorded. If it weren't for rampant sampling and some primitive hip-hop beats, the record could pass for something from the 1920s.

Old-world charm

"I'm trying to relearn what our hands used to know. I really feel this kind of a loss of what a lot of civilization has taken from us: our knowledge and our connection with natural rhythms," said Dawn McCarthy, 32, guitarist and lead singer of Oakland, Calif.-based Faun Fables.

The duo, which also features Nils Frykdahl, released its debut record, Family Album, this year on Drag City. Part folk, part performance art, during a live show last month, the high-energy group exuded an earthy, old-world charm that would have been equally appropriate at a Renaissance festival.

Faun Fables isn't the sort of act that would go over well with fans of straightforward, modern-day folk artists, such as Iris DeMent. In fact, most of these new folk artists are finding their audience in the hip, young indie rock crowd and are played predominantly on college radio.

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