In my last post I talked about what folk music is; now I’d like to talk a bit about two recent albums that challenged my own perceptions of the genre. There was a time when I was younger, I was a bit of a purist, and the word “rock” next to “folk” was not something that interested me. Tastes evolve and people change, over the last few years I’ve become a lot more open minded than I was when in college and only listening to Irish trad. Now when I see folk rock I think “I like folk rock” and will check it out. That being said both of the albums I’d like to highlight here, The World We Built by The Wild Reeds and Crack-Up by Fleet Foxes, don’t really fit too well into preexisting categories and really take their own direction. These are exactly the type of works I’d really like this space to be about, those that find their own voice to create something that challenges what “folk music” means to create something unique and beautiful.
There is a lot of great music available these days, so much so, that most of us have become a bit jaded with it all, myself included. Despite that, I still have a voracious appetite for new music and love discovering new sounds. With so much music available it’s incredibly rare for me to find something that immediately does it for me, especially something that holds up to repeat listening. Back in April when The Wild Reeds, a 5 piece band from LA led by three great singers and multi-instrumentalists Sharon Silva, Mackenzie Howe, and Kinsey Lee and supported on bass and drums respectively by Nick Phakpiseth and Nick Jones, released The World We Built they started to get a lot of press.
After finding myself on their website multiple times I finally did something that would send shock waves through my being; I clicked play on the video for the first single “Only Songs”. I was pretty much floored, it was like I was a teenager again discovering a new band, I was hooked. It’s hard to say what it was that really got me, maybe is was the chunky, distorted electric guitar intro or the hint of the harmonium in the background or Mackenzie’s edgy country tinged voice which is kind of like Lucinda Williams crossed with Gillain Welch, but more likely it was the lyrics. I too feel that “The only thing that saves me are these songs I sing baby…”, as I am a pro musician myself that has been my experience. Everything that everyone said I should want and strive for never held a candle to the music; it was always more important than money, some fancy job, some relationship, etc. A sentiment so close to my heart at the fore of this album was a big deal to me; I ordered a copy the next day and tweeted out how excited I was to have discovered this and even put in the tweet #NewFavoriteBand. I totally expected to eat my words on that hashtag, but you know what? Here it is 4 months later and I’m listening to this album right now and if I wasn’t writing I would be singing along so that hyperbolic hashtag actually turned out to be truth.
This is an incredible work detailing the struggles the people in the band have faced to get where they are now; the hardship and sacrifices musicians have to face to get somewhere and the love that holds it all together. Every track on this album is a winner so it’s hard to narrow it down, apart from the one I already mentioned (“Only Songs”) I’d also say “Everything Looks Better (In Hindsight)”, “Fix You Up”, “Back to Earth”, “Capable”, and “Fruition” are my highlights. Perhaps the biggest peak for me is in the song “Capable” when Sharon proclaims “I’m capable of so much more than you people give me credit for and I just need to show it” and then shreds on a lead guitar solo. I think this is the takeaway for the album here; the songs here are a testimony to the strength each of us has inside us and the fact that it often takes facing incredible hardship to realize we contain that strength.
Where The World We Built is an album that imparts it’s messages fairly succinctly and speaks directly to the heart; Crack-Up is a much more cerebral work and is, pardon the pun, a difficult nut to crack. Somehow I missed out on Fleet Foxes before, I don’t know how or why but I didn’t really hear of them until they were getting back together around the end of last year. They broke up in 2013 when the drummer left the band, you probably know him as Father John Misty now, and have reformed recently (with 3 different drummers taking turns on the album here). I was hearing interesting things about Crack-Up, like people calling it prog folk which is of interest to me, so when it became available to stream on NPR I took advantage. When I did there was only one thing that occurred to me; this is the album I have been wanting to listen to on so many different occasions. Honestly I had been longing for something like this, an album that in itself was almost a drug, something that listening to will cause new ideas and new perspectives to take shape.
It was a while before I could get a copy, didn’t have the cash to spend, but eventually I managed to afford one. It hasn’t disappointed! This is the type of work that may change your life; something that explores uncharted and forgotten territories, that invents it’s own rules as it goes along and isn’t afraid to break them later. A big, expansive orchestral work that seems a little bit different every time you listen to it. What so excited me about this work is that I haven’t really heard anything like it from other modern groups (maybe there’s stuff out there that I just haven’t discovered!), an experimental, progressive folk album that leads one on a journey of introspection and challenges the listener to find meaning in a deconstructed landscape filled with ambient noises. At one point I saw it alluded to that this is a concept album, I haven’t been able to confirm this anywhere, but it wouldn’t surprise me. It seems as if the concept is a sense of unease as the result of new knowledge, a way of looking at the world that causes a sense of cognitive dissonance because one now sees things as they are, not as the way one wanted them to be. (This would make some sense, the front-man Robin Pecknold did spend his years off at Columbia University.) The edge of madness that enlightenment will take a person to, the sense of losing it when in reality everything becomes much clearer and it’s the old way of being which seems so crazy.
Despite being big and complex, there are plenty of airy, harmonious chorus-y sections (which I understand is what the old Fleet Foxes are best known for, haven’t had the ability to explore their back catalogue yet) that will stick in your head, like the opening to the first single “Third of May / Ōdaigahara”. However, don’t let the opening fool you, this is an almost 9 minute epic that will take you on a journey. The lyrics in the song “Cassius-” bring to mind great imagery and the soaring melody line is pretty damn catchy. This album explores other musical influences, Robin Pecknold stated in an interview on the podcast Song Explorer that “Mearcstapa” takes influences from, among others, Malian singer and multi-instrumentalist Ali Farka Touré. The track “On Another Ocean (January / June)” has a particularly modal jazz feel to me in the dorian section at the beginning, the open voicing in the piano chords and parallel movement is very reminiscent of Coltrane Quartet-era McCoy Tyner. The sense of cognitive dissonance is heightened in the tracks “Fool’s Errand” and “I Should See Memphis” both of which end with nearly a minute of ambient sound that creates the feel of a sub-plot climaxing. This album forced me to make changes in my own life, it is on another level itself and by listening I could only strive to achieve that level personally.
This is what truly great music can accomplish; it can change our lives for the better and bring clarity to things that can be difficult to figure out. Music can lift us up and bring us together; I think both of these albums can do these things even if they do so in very different ways. Hearing both of these made me re-think my approach to my own music; they both pushed me to the realization the best folk sub-genre for my original music is indie and that I should separate this from the Irish trad. Two important revelations that have much bigger ramifications than just what it says on my website.
If I had come across either of these albums maybe 5-10 years ago (obviously they didn’t exist but let’s pretend) I may have not even given them a chance because they wouldn’t have been “traditional” enough. Great music transcends boxes which is why labeling things as “folk” or whatever can be limiting. Yet, as big an umbrella as the folk genre is I came to the conclusion that this music is, as Willie Dixon said about the blues, truth. There is a lot of truth on both of these albums, whether it is outspoken like on The World We Built or presented more elusively like on Crack-Up, so the fact that neither of these albums may fit perfectly in the “folk” box becomes less important than the fact that they authentically relate the human experience. That is what folk music, “the music of the people”, is supposed to do; be a tonic for the difficulties we all face and help us all realize that my struggle is not so different from your struggle.