In a MySpace age of hypenated multiple genre designation, the term “folk” is increasingly used by artists and promoters as a call to a specific approach to musicmaking – usually characterized by acoustic instrumentation, and/or a sort of lo-fi confessional sensibility.
If we were cynics, we might suspect that the term is used primarily not to signify genre identity at all, but instead to call to a kind of authenticity or legitimacy, as if being “folk” was a good, organic, indie thing to be. Certainly, the sounds produced by these slash-folk-slash-other bands do sometimes contain hints of tradition, and of intimacy, and of storytelling. And sometimes, they have acoustic guitars. But the hybrid forms which this phenomenon creates are too fragmented to be true subgenres. And for most folks, they're not folk, either.
That said, there is a high potential for subgenre to appear at the intersection of one musical form and another. Previously on Cover Lay Down, we've taken a look at some other subgenres from the fringes of folk, a diverse set spanning Celtic Punk, Bluegrass, and Zydeco. Today, we look at one of the boundaries where the folk world meets something else entirely. Its nominal figurehead and unspoken leader Devendra Banhart calls it Naturalismo. Most people call it Freak Folk. And let me warn you in advance, folks: it's kind of weird.
See, it's pretty much a given in folk music that the prevalence of singer-songwriter folk forms at the core of modern folk music traces its lineage to the folk revival of the sixties. Go to any folk festival; few are stretching the boundaries. Instead, there's something definitively sixties-esque about the ways in which, like Bob Dylan and Joni Michell before them, new artists continue to connect with an entire generation, via the intimate nature of folk music, that they might question their values and structures through lyrics which applied the personal to the political.
But though it is easy to misremember the connections between such ultimately mainstream artists and the hippie movements as if they were synonymous, it is also important to remember that the act of questioning power led the hippies to some very strange journeys and new values – which celebrated experimentation over structure, and a rejection of the trappings of coopted mainstream success which came so quickly for our beloved sixties icons.
The hippie drug culture which grew up and dropped out to embrace such values also brought forth folk forms of its own which lived outside the mainstream folkways, strange in instrumentation and intonation. They called it Freak Folk -- folk to freak out to, and folk for freaks -- and its champions included Donovan, the Incredible String Band, and even early Jefferson Airplane.
If Josh Ritter and Ani DiFranco's latest protege are the new mainstream folk, then despite a primary fan base in the indie community, Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Vetiver and Animal Collective have a legitimate claim to the Freak Folk throne. And, just as in the sixties, the mainstream camps of the folkworld haven't really noticed. And maybe it's all for the better. Call it what you will – freak folk, Nu-folk, or a particular brand of psych folk – the modern inheritors of the strange, delicate, visionary music of Donovan and Vashti Bunyan by way of Nick Drake produce a music heavy with experience and ecstasy which would, I fear, both bore and frustrate many stolid folk fans.
It took me awhile, too. Certainly, I came to freak folk slowly. I never really got into the original freak folk movement. When Joanna Newsom was all over the blogs a year or two back, I eagerly sampled, but found her grasshopper-warble voice and classical discordant harp playing kind of alienating. Now that the dust has started to settle a bit on the newest wave of the freak folk movement, I find I like it.
Even if I'm still not sure what to make of it.
It's surreal, and strange, and I guess that's part of the point. Musically, freak folk and the related genre designations Psych folk and nu-folk fall well within the "folk idiom" as one astute wikipedian puts it. But unless he was a serious hippie, this is not your father's folk record collection. Freak Folk leans heavily on the drone, combining it with an almost elizabethan sound and instrumentation, as if the players on stage in a production of As You Like It got heavy into the acid before the curtain went up on the second act.
But there's also something wonderfully delicate about the music that gets put into this category, especially in the vocalization. The voices are creaky and strange, focused on delivery more than beauty, and yet somehow, a strange and alien beauty can emerge nonetheless from the trancelike product.
Is Freak Folk folk in more than just name? Yes, I think so. The tendency toward stripped-down, acoustic performance is there; more, the music may sound like an alien's confession, but it is still confessional in its own way, strange metaphors and all.
Yet as it was in its original incarnation, Freak Folk remains a challenge to the very mainstream listening habits of the coopted folkworld. In the end, I think, this is a form of folk which is notable for how introspective it is for the performer -- and how isolated the performer is, in pose and persona and performance, from the audience itself. Where both the traditional folkforms which emerge from cultures and the confessional singer-songwriter forms which still typify the core group of performers at folk festivals work as folk because the lyrics and the simple structures of the music allow for an easy connection between listener and player, Freak Folk plays with a kind of alienating tension which reverses the traditional stance between music and masses.
Sometimes it fails -- I know plenty of folk fans who cannot listen comfortably to this music. And if this sort of folk succeeds at all for the audience, it is only by proxy, at least until we get fully drawn into the psychadelic tranceworld of the performer. But when it works, Freak Folk goes beyond connecting performers and audiences to engender shared ecstacies which can dissolve all boundaries between the music and the core emotional beings of both listener and performer. This is the psychadelic experience, after all.
Today, some cover songs from the Freak Folk scene, plus a few especially comparable songs from artists whose names keep coming up in the research. The covers approach serves us especially well today, I think: this is a form of music which is difficult in some ways, so having an entry point in the commonality of familiar lyric and melody may be a necessary component to bring some of us in far enough to even attempt the ecstatic experience. But listen deeply. There is an immense, fragile beauty here that can make you shiver.
- Devendra Banhart, Don't Look Back in Anger (orig. Oasis)
- Devendra Banhart, Fistful of Love (orig. Antony and the Johnsons)
(from Guilt By Association and a 2005 magazine release, respectively; more Devendra here)
- Vetiver, Roll On Babe (orig. Ronnie Lane)
- Vetiver, Blue Driver (orig. Michael Hurley)
(from brand new Vetiver coveralbum A Thing of the Past)
- Animal Collective, Polly (orig. Nirvana)
(live, more Animal Collective here)
- Joanna Newsom, Angel (orig. Jimi Hendrix)
(live; more Joanna Newsom here)
- Twinsistermoon, House Carpenter's Daughter (trad.)
(from Rivers of Blood Ending in the Sun, a bonus disk no longer available with this album. More Twinsistermoon, aka one half of Natural Snow Buildings, here)
- Sufjan Stevens, She Is (orig. Tim Buckley)
(from Dream Brother: The Songs of Tim and Jeff Buckley; more Sufjan here)
- Iron and Wine, Same Old Song (orig, The Four Tops)
- Iron and Wine, Such Great Heights (orig. Postal Service)
(from a demo and the Garden State soundtrack, respectively; more Iron and Wine here)
Like most of the artists in today's feature, we here at Cover Lay Down eschew corporate culture, but these folks gotta eat, and you gotta hear 'em. Each of the artists herein produces albums; all are worth the investment, both emotionally speaking and as purchases. Click artist links above to buy work the organic, countercultural way: direct from the places where the artists best benefit.
Today's bonus coversong: though most of the Freak Folk movement is too new to have been covered, Joanna Newsom has charmed more than a few fans in the world of indie music. Here, two very different covers totally transform her original sound, while still retaining the marginal essence of freak and the delicate, deliberate approach of folk.