November 23, 2010

Josephine Foster – Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You
folk, singer/songwriter

Much like fellow folkie Joanna Newsom, Josephine Foster gets unfairly (and sometimes dismissively) bundled into the “difficult voice” crowd of female musicians. While her vocals are a little unconventional when compared to some of the other artists that sprung from the Golden Apples of the Sun compilation (on which, like Newsom, she was featured), they’re certainly not impenetrable. Foster trills and warbles delightfully, singing of secret loves, hidden places and her desire for a man with “rhythm in his waist Josephine Foster - Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead Youand hair on his chest”, and as such there’s a classical beauty and good-natured warmth to her singing which, when combined with the simple, rustic production, bare instrumentation and total absence of pretense, gives the album a displaced quality which makes it hard to initially anchor Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You to a specific time period. Her vocal is totally consistent, and yet I found myself thinking of all kinds of different contexts throughout the album – at times she sounds like a mystic-folk hippie at one with the world; at others she branches into cryptic storytelling that seems to cast her as a bard of some King’s court; “There Are Eyes Above” and “Trees Lay By” sound like traditional lullabies; several songs have a bluesy or baroque tilt to them; and then the gentle coos she uses to farewell “The Siren’s Admonition” and “The Golden-Wooden Tone” have her sounding like the soundtrack to a family matinée from the 1950s. By the end of the album, I felt convinced she could have stepped out of just about any time in the last several hundred years, which is quite a remarkable rarity in music today. Foster plays virtually every instrument on the album, and while her acoustic guitar is the centrepiece on most tracks, she also makes use of a variety of supporting instruments including tambourine, recorder, harp, flute, all manner of clickers, chimes, bells and whistles and even a few playful turns on the kazoo, finally adding in some harmonised-with-herself vocal overdubs that are just sublime. While my own favourites would have to be the lovely opener “The Siren’s Admonition” and the utterly charming “Good News”, Foster possesses the kind of consistent songwriting prowess and distinct artistic identity that will lead every listener to discover their own unique connection to her work. The brilliance of Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You rests on that most personal of intangibles – Foster’s work has a strong sense of sentimentality and … let’s call it “specialness”, something indefinable that makes the album feel like a piece of lost treasure that was created just for you. It shamelessly tugs at the heartstrings, and I’ve found myself quite helplessly enamoured.




November 10, 2010

Jackie-O Motherfucker – Fig. 5
free-folk, post-rock, jazz, New Weird America

On Fig 5, Jackie-O Motherfucker take an overtly exploratory approach to the soulful twang of Southern folk and Americana, in which their improvvy, jam-band stylings are driven along by multiple guitars, touches of banjo, varying percussion, harmonica, free-jazz and even some sparse sampling. Their expansive takes on traditional songs like “Amazing Grace” and “Go Down, Old Hannah” are filled with warmth and beauty, while “Your Cells are in Motion”, with its propulsive rhythm and looping guitar lines, is a personal favourite. The band have about a dozen members, and being such a large collective with a somewhat improvisational playstyle, there are moments when the music can feel a bit directionless (somewhat akin to an Americana orchestra in the process of warming up), particularly on the first listen. While some listeners will find this instantly charming, to others it’ll act as something of a barrier. In time, though, it becomes apparent that the band Jackie-O Motherfucker - Fig. 5are simply piecing together their songs in a carefully organic manner, and it can be quite a fascinating experience to hear each musical genesis gradually run its course. It’s a true pleasure to witness some of the finest free-folk music of the decade being constructed “one brick at a time”, however, the point when all those bricks fall into place and the band lock into their groove is where Jackie-O Motherfucker truly come into their own. The results are uniformly captivating.



November 1, 2010

Big Blood – Space Gallery Jan. 27, 2007 / Sahara Club Jan. 28, 2007
free-folk, avant-garde folk, psychedelic-folk

When long-running post-rock/prog-folk group Cerberus Shoal went on temporary hiatus in 2006, vocalists and multi-instrumentalists Caleb Mulkerin and Colleen Kinsella went on to form avant-garde folk quartet Big Blood. From the first moment I heard these guys, I knew they were onto something very special indeed. Space Gallery Jan. 27, 2007 / Sahara Club Jan. 28, 2007Their particular style of folk music, heavy on the baroque and European influences and characterised by warm strokes of accordion and banjo and some truly idiosyncratic vocals, seemed to tap directly into the source of everything that I love about this kind of music, with Kinsella’s unusual vocals being particularly intriguing. The songs are a bit clunky, the playing is loose and the whole thing is recorded with a minimal degree of professionalism, yet this album is filled with such romance, passion and unconventional beauty that I find myself moved with every listen. Space Gallery (which isn’t, as its title would suggest, a live concert recording – rather, it refers to the date and location of the studio recording sessions) is their finest work, anchored around three of the decade’s greatest individual tracks – the lively, totally off-kilter “Glory Daze”, the gorgeous longform folk opus “She Said Nothing” and “The Rise of Quinnisa Rose”, whose simple, repeating four chord melody and uplifting vocals immediately remind me of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”. Perhaps the most exciting thing about these guys is that they’re highly prolific (this is one of ten albums they released in the second half of the decade), consistently excellent and have provided digital versions of the majority of their albums for free on the net (just search for them on Free Music Archive). That’s a wealth of amazing material to be had for absolutely nothing, so go check it out!


September 16, 2010

Sunburned Hand of the ManJaybird
psychedelic-rock, free-folk, jam band

Jaybird, the debut by prolific free-folk collective Sunburned Hand of the Man, is an exceptional work. The group have found some very rich middle-ground between psychedelic-rock, folk, improv, drone and funk, which sees them float their way through half a dozen lengthy tracks of drowsy astro-folk. Each of the album’s pieces sounds fundamentally similar, yet Sunburned Hand of the Man - Jaybirdthey all establish their own distinct balance between the building blocks of ethereal vocal hollers, jangling tambourines, multi-layered guitar (acoustic and electric, including some lovely touches of slide), flanged sound effects, whistling pipes, “faux-loose” percussion and solid basslines, with tiny, subtle differences from track to track (or sometimes within sections of a single track). While the druggy opener “Featherweight” is one of the album’s slower, sleepier affairs, followup “The Jaybird” tightens the basslines way up and adds a very slight funky edge to push the song into groovier territory, and so it continues throughout the album, alternating between consistently shallow peaks and troughs. I’d rate this one very highly within the psych/free-folk canon.


July 6, 2010

Racoo-oo-oon – Behold Secret Kingdom
experimental-rock, free-folk

There’s an almost shamanistic quality to Behold Secret Kingdom, the 2007 release by psychedelic freak-rockers Racoo-oo-oon. Blending together a combination of druggy basslines, guitars that bounce from melodic lines to seeming random clashes (there’sRaccoo-oo-oon - Behold Secret Kingdom definitely some early Sonic Youth influences in there), nonsensically chanted vocals, krautrock rhythms and hazy, primitive production, and then channeling it all through a lost-in-the-woods-at-night-but-quite-happy-to-be-there kind of vibe, the group manage to achieve a sound that feels ritualistic and quite Earthy. It’s the type of sound that free-folk and New Weird America groups like Sunburned Hand of the Man and Jackie-O Motherfucker would produce if you were to push their free-flowing musical aesthetics to their logical extremes. While the album sports a bit of a crazy, untamed sound, to the listener’s benefit it all falls on the accessible side of sheer madness, and there’s even some nice segments like the crescendo at the end of “Visage of the Fox” which feel like clever twists on the familiar post-rock playbook. It’s a must-hear for any fans of instrumental, guitar-based music who’d like to try something a little stranger than the norm. Face paint, bonfires and howling at the moon are optional, but recommended.