“NormanOak was once a Glacier that came crushing and cutting its way from the North for many years, and then stopped suddenly for some mysterious reason, and melted into cool, clear water for Coyote to drink. As Coyote, NormanOak crept through caves, roamed the wild hills, and was eventually killed by a car in the darkness, left for the bugs and birds. One of these birds was Woodpecker, and Woodpecker pecked on NormanOak’s trunk so hard one day that he woke up again – one last time…”
This quasi-Native American folktale is printed on the sleeve of NormanOak’s, a.k.a. Chris Barth’s, first solo release, Born a Black Diamond, and those three longish sentences really set the tone and mood for the music that follows. A member of both the bands The Impossible Shapes and John Wilkes Booze, Barth recorded this psychedelic folk album in odd times amidst the recording of the Shapes’ latest album. Whether it was a short break, after hours, or during quiet times, Barth would record `NormanOak’ songs onto a four track cassette.
Audibly, and in spirit, Barth shares a kinship with other folk artists finding themselves amid a renaissance today, especially Devendra Banhart. While there are similarities to other folkies like Iron & Wine, Sufjan Stevens, and Espers, Barth shares more of the roaming spirit / nomadic hippie / friend to all animals thing that Devendra Banhart also has. Both create folk music that evokes pastoral imagery and both rely solely on the guitar and slight percussion while eschewing the banjo, the folk instrument du jour.
NormanOak or Chris Barth, or whatever you may want to call him has definitely put out some quality music, while mostly treading on safe ground. The only time the album veers in to the experimental is on the track “Born Again”, a song which recalls one of the better psych-folk albums of recent memory, Sung Tongs by Animal Collective, even though the song only lasts just over a minute. But for the most part, the songs are straightforward and simple. Recording on a four track helps with the aura it creates, reminding me of Iron & Wine’s first two releases, the tape hiss and ambient noises in the background creating an intimacy that seems lost with digital recording.
One of the best songs on the record is the last one, “The Ballad of NormanOak”. The song’s lyrics seem to point at how the alter ego NormanOak affected and changed Chris Barth’s life, creating one of those weird “who created who, and who’s speaking?” paradoxes.
you touched me, you put on a show
no one knows, no one knows
I sing them on your behalf
Oh it goes, oh it goes
It touched them in a place I know
You touched me, you let out some smoke
Oh it goes, oh it goes”
Echoing electric guitar notes over strumming acoustic and the haunting keening repetition of lyrics creates an eerie yet compelling composition. Barth has fully grasped what folk music is, storytelling and actual folktales brought to life through simple instrumentation.
Through the album you can somewhat envision the folktale coming to life. You see the slow moving glacier cutting down trees in its path, halting and then finally melting. You see the coyote drinking from the water that the glacier once was, the woodpecker scavenging, and finally awakening the tree that is NormanOak. In both the tale and the music, Chris Barth is attempting to inhabit nature and through this folk landscape he has created, he succeeds.