Remember the day you discovered that the `alternative’ was really not so alternative? I certainly remember how the `college’ bands of my youth started signing to major labels one by freakin’ one. Well, it hasn’t really stopped; the cycle ever continuing as the masses slowly but surely latch onto a trend, suck it dry, then spit it out. There will come a day, mark my words, when everyone will consider Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, and Coldplay so passé and `last week’ that they will be lining used record store bins for years, that is, until they become so uncool and `retro’ they become cool again.
What’s my point? Well, my point is that right now there seems to be a trend in independent music which is the rise of folk. Psych-folk, nu-folk, call it what you will, it’s catching on and seems to be here to stay for awhile. The beauty of it lies in the fact that there is not one particular style of folk becoming prominent. For years Ani DiFranco has given us her Woody Guthrie/Joni Mitchell/Henry Rollins love child version of folk/poetry straight outta Buffalo. Damien Rice has continued in his own Irish fashion. Then you have the folk holy trinity of Sufjan Stevens, Sam Beam, and Devendra Banhart coming from Michigan / Brooklyn, Florida, and god knows where respectively. See the reviews of each of these artists on this site to catch a flavor of their styles as each one is distinctly different.
And now we can place Philadelphia on the folk map with the collective started by Greg Weeks called Espers. Where else should folk emanate but from the City of Brotherly Love? This isn’t exactly the folk found in A Mighty Wind, but with the back and forth singing of Meg Baird and Greg Weeks, it’s not really too far off from our beloved Mitch and Mickey. Take this statement in the broadest terms, please. What I mean is that the male / female dynamic of both are prominent and noticeable. Otherwise, they are worlds apart. Aside from the comic pastiche of one versus the complete seriousness of the other, there is the depth and breadth of instrumentation of the Philadelphia collective. Using not only the prerequisite acoustic guitars, Espers also uses electric guitars, and in the case of the song “Riding”, uses it almost Slash-“November Rain” style. You’ll also hear a bowed guitar, dulcimer, cymbals, chimes, harmonicas, recorders, autoharps, violins, flutes, violas, and cellos. What, no banjo? No. Nor any drums.
What this instrumentation does, sans rhythm section, is softly lull us into a sense of pastoral peace. Except for the electric instruments, you would swear that they probably played and recorded in Lancaster, that is, Amish country. The real standout instruments on the album are the intertwining and harmonizing vocals of the aforementioned Baird and Weeks, and at times Tara Burke. Imagine a stripped down My Bloody Valentine, as if Kevin Shields had a folk revelation, and you might come close. Espers has that same room filling feel, albeit with quieter and less instrumentation. Espers also has that ethereal, dreamy vocal quality that is prevalent in MBV, Cocteau Twins, and other bands of their ilk. I think I’ll create a new genre and call it `folkgazing’, because when you think about, there are really not enough labels out there.
Locust seems to really excel in the area of quality delicate and airy music with Cyann & Ben and now Espers. This is going to be a label to watch in the coming months and years for sure. Who else would release an album with a song, “Hearts & Daggers”, which at times sounds like Shakespearean / Elizabethan choruses, and then at others sound like Pink Floyd or Jethro Tull? Locust, that’s who.
Everything about this album is beautiful, even the packaging. The album cover is one of the prettiest I’ve seen and truly matches the feel of the music within, delicate, intricate, and gorgeous. It might not be the best choice of a CD on a long early morning drive (trust me), but it’s definitely one for those quiet introspective times when you feel like drinking some mulled wine and writing some pastoral odes or idylls. People still do that don’t they?
Sufjan Stevens- Seven Swans
Iron & Wine- The Sea & the Rhythm
Nick Drake- Time of No Reply