Folk is one of those genres that doesn't get the love it should. It's understandable, really, most of us bloggers aren't baby boomers. And when we were doing our musical walking (as opposed to musical crawling), we were listening to rock or hip-hop or a subsidiary of those forms. So, it hardly seems relevant to report on what's happening to such a tried-and-true musical form that they play only at Starbucks, right? Wrong.
The past two years have seen a plethora of new releases which challenge, update, and continue the musical tradition which was forged among workers, the lower class, and was most recently made relevant as a popular because everyone owns the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. From the long form poetry of Josh T. Pearson's Last of the Country Gentlemen to Marissa Nadler's last two records to the acoustic onomatopoeia rattling around the Dirty Projector's Swing Lo Magellan, folk music is in a quiet resurgence. Here's why:
1. Carolina Chocolate Drops
Leaving Eden, the latest from the 'Drops (pictured above) begins with the bang and salvation of a marching band. Their last record, Genuine Negro Jig, flirted with Blu Cantrell while resuscitating and revamping traditional black music. Adeptly mixing beat-boxing, traditional instrumentation and some of the best vocals out there, Leaving Eden picks up where the Carolina Chocolate Drops (ahem) dropped it. It's proof that you don't need an extravagant rhythm section to make feet stomp and (with apologies to Willis Earle Beale) that you don't need to try to sound authentic. The concoction of blues, bluegrass, and hip-hop that they serve up is one of the most enticing sounds that we've gotten this year.
Staying within 30 miles of the last entry, here comes Durham, NC's Bowerbirds. Situated comfortably within the indie folk category, The Clearing, Bowerbird's latest, is one of the most evocative albums of the year. Here's proof that expanding your sound can be a boon for everyone. Best listened with a cup of tea and headphones, Bowerbirds's sound expands and contracts without effort. It's one of the hallmarks of folk music, to make the excruciating appear simple, and it's accomplished here to a tee. Tracks like "Overcome with Light" blossom out before you repeating and revising refrains into revelation.
3. Punch Brothers (review)
If Carolina Chocolate Drops are making different musical bedfellows best friends and Bowerbirds are strumming all the emotion out, then Punch Brothers are destroying just what it means to be bluegrass with their hyper-literate musical compositions. As bandleader Chris Thile puts it, they're a band that just happens to play bluegrass. While the aforementioned Dirty Projectors seem to push (sometimes too hard) a new musical paradigm on their audience, Punch Brothers seem to accept their niche and try to draw us into it. "Movement and Location," the Greg Maddox-inspired opener, is easily a track of the year candidate and you still probably haven't heard it.
4. Kathleen Edwards
Ironically, if there was someone who was going to get me to invest stock into the Bon Iver sound company, it wouldn't be the flannel'd Grammy-winner who gets days named after him in Wisconsin. Voyager, which made it out early this year, wasn't just a time-slot hit. It's an infinitely listenable record produced by Edwards and Mr. Iver/Vernon. The game may be a bit old hat to Edwards, whose first record came out almost a decade ago, but this record seems to have completely revitalized her career. Opener "Empty Threat" uses up all the glory of Bon Iver's records without the too-precious moments or that weird auto-tune sounding thing. The bridge for "Soft Place to Land" is equally riveting as it builds and builds, Edwards keeps us focused on the important thing -- her masterful songwriting.
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention several other fantastic folky albums out this year here, but you've already seen our reviews of them most likely. If you haven't click on the name and it'll take you to what we have to say: Marissa Nadler, Tallest Man on Earth, and Hip Hatchet.