Monday, September 15, 2008

TVD's Daily Wax

Ed's Note: From loyal reader, to guest poster, to full-time contributor, please welcome to TVD Ms. Urban Gypsy who'll take the reins here this week with some rather off-kilter pairings for you to consider:

This week on TVD, we’re taking a look at some interesting examples of hybrid musical genres. What is a musical genre, anyway? Is there any reliable, rational way of classifying music into neat little categories? Music is such a pliable art form with so many influences and changing contexts that it’s impossible pin down every artist with a simple label. But genres can be useful, even if only as a system to organize albums at the record store. Some of the most interesting musical styles are created when the artist yanks together two or more radically different genres and melds them together into something totally innovative and inspired. We’d love to hear your comments on the music featured here this week. Do you agree with how we’ve described and classified this music? Did we miss one of your favorites or include someone who doesn’t deserve the mention? Let’s have some feedback!

First up on the agenda is what music writers call “freak folk,” though many of the musicians themselves prefer the term “naturalismo.” The weird dreamy music in this genre can fall anywhere along the continuum of “sweet and pleasant” to “fingernails on blackboard.” It’s rarely an easy listen, but once you’ve acquired a taste for it, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it. When my friend Nechama first heard the voice of Joanna Newsom while listening to her ipod in a public washroom, she was so startled that she jumped up and banged her head on a metal shelf. This is a common response of first-time listeners to the eerie vocal stylings of these musicians, so consider yourself warned! If you persevere and overcome this barrier, you will enjoy the inventive use of unusual instrumentation, whimsical lyrics, and psychedelic yet folksy soundscapes this genre has to offer. The wacky postmodern flower-child lifestyle isn’t really my cup of tea, but what I love most about “freak folk” songs are the intensely poetic lyrics, often so masterful that they can stand as works of art on their own. At its best, “freak folk” transcends the sonic limits of good taste and borders on the sublime. Prepare to assail your ears and uplift your soul with these songs:

Holy Modal Rounders - Down The Old Plank Road (Mp3)
Joanna Newsom - Three Little Babes (Mp3)
Devendra Banhart - Sea Horse (Mp3)
Incredible String Band - First Girl I Loved (Mp3)
Sufjan Stevens - The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts (Mp3)


dickvandyke said...

Dya think a young Kate Bush woulda fallen into this category?

Billicatons said...

Nice selection of songs.

I'm never sure how freak folk relates to so-called anti-folk. Any ideas?

I quite like the idea of calling the genre 'forward folk'. Lots of folk music is very much based on traditions; freak folk seems to be about taking the music's characteristics but doing away with too much retrospection.

Ultralash is a freak-folker worth checking out:

Urban Gypsy said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments!


Well, that question made me do a double take. I can't believe it never occured to me before. Yes, of course I think she would fall into this category in terms of vocal and musical style. To the best of my knowledge, she never made a point of fitting into the whole freak folk culture that goes along with the music... wasn't she more of a proto-new-waver? Someone can fill me in, I don't know much about her. Another great singer along these lines to check out is Vashti Bunyan.


I think the main difference is that anti-folk is more ironic and lo-fi, whereas freak folk is more earnest and experimental. Those are arbitrary generalizations, but I think they may be helpful.

I love the term "forward folk" as well! Though I'm not sure if it's fair to say they ignore tradition... Joanna Newsom is known to play a lot of vintage Appalachain folk stuff.

I listened to the Ultralash track... whoa! That's intense! I would call that a perfect midpoint between freak folk and anti folk. I hear the PJ Harvey comparison too. Very nice blog btw!

IntangibleArts said...

Great selection, and thanks for mixing up the eras there, proving to the young'uns this isn't a new phenomenon (and praise allah for the HMRounders: their track "mobile line" is one of the most restrained/demented things put to vinyl)...

Six Organs of Admittance would go nicely in this mix as well.

Billicatons said...

Thanks, Urban Gypsy ... That's nice distinction (and how gratifying, unwittingly to have linked to an average of the two).

Good point about traditionalism. I probably expressed that a little carelessly. After all, I guess even the most ironically modern artist is just as bound to tradition, even if (s)he is reacting totally against it.

Recently came across the term 'Folk Noir' too - in connection with a band called The Winding Stair whom we supported in Belfast:

Ah, subgenres ...

Urban Gypsy said...


Thanks for catching that mixing of eras! I always try for a bit of historical context if the genre is old enough... freak folk was certainly not invented by Sufjan Stevens!


Folk noir! I guess the subgenre fun never ends! I really like the dark Celtic flavor of The Winding Stair...