If January was disappointingly slow, February sought to make up for it a few times over. Below are the three best albums that one could loosely call ‘folk’ that I came across during the month, but they aren’t the only three albums worth your time. I couldn’t shoehorn the definition of folk to include the debut EP from Middle Kids, the debut album from Vagabon or the new Strand of Oaks album, but those are three of the artists I was most excited to hear from early this year and each delivered something special that’s worth your time and money. Adam Torres put out a terrific companion EP to his masterful album from last year, Patrick Dethlefs released alovely new 6-song collection and Balto released a rollicking, soulful new full-length. There was a lot of good in February, but let’s talk about the best.
Prisoner is a record about the aftermath of a divorce. Not the immediate aftermath when the destruction is fresh and bitterness, anger and hurt are all-encompassing, but rather, it’s about the after party to that aftermath. It’s about when there’s been enough distance to look at things that happened objectively and assess your role in it all. It’s about what happens when you stop assigning blame and look at it like an adult. It’s about the loneliness that consumes you, the same loneliness that allows you to get your shit together. It’s about feelings and about feeling like a human again. It’s about being interested in someone new and how terrifying and exciting that is. It’s about knowing that you’ll be haunted by that ghost ship of your former life in some form for forever, but that you’re on the right track and you’re at peace with it. It’s an album about next steps. Having gone through this on a personal level myself, I can tell you that these songs capture the essence and dichotomy of a particular time after a divorce so vividly and perfectly. It’s a tremendously raw and real collection, and it’s easily the best album Ryan Adams has released in quite some time.
In a sense, Adams has grown up with us through his career. He’s been the young, brash, ultimately dumb and self-destructive kid, and so were we at one point in our lives. He’s been in love any number of times and had his heart broken, and so have we. And with Prisoner, he’s grown up, he’s learned the lessons life teaches you as it tries to crush you with loss, and he’s figured out what he wants out of life and love, and he’s found out what ultimately makes him happy. If we’re lucky, we’ll do the same before it’s too late.
Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way early— there’s a reason Leif Vollebekk has been eliciting Dylan comparisons since he came on the scene with 2010’s Inland. The comparisons are fair, sure, but it’s more based on delivery than substance, Vollebekk’s rambling croon easily identifiable as Dylan-esque even if the sweeping, wordy songs he crafts and subjects in them don’t bear all that much resemblance. There, that feels good to get out of the way. It’s not unfair, it’s just a little more nuanced than the straight comparison leads on.
Twin Solitude is the third album from Vollebekk, one that’s an interesting sonic step forward for him after 2014’s supremely underrated North Americana. The songs are still undoubtedly his, full of that familiar cadence and those effective turns of phrase that have come to define them. But the songs are also different this time around, the focus of the sound shifting from guitars and shuffling drums to one built around a pronounced rhythm filled out sparsely with piano lines and well-placed guitar lines. The effect is something altogether engaging and interesting, helping each of these songs full of snapshots of life and love in various cities reach their full potential. All we want from artists is for them to grow further into the best, truest version of the artist they see themselves as from one album to the next, and that’s certainly what it seems Leif Vollebekk has done here with Twin Solitude.
There’s an unassuming ease and depth to Rose Cousins’ songs and her smooth, Patty Griffen-esque delivery that belies the fact that she’s a powerhouse and that it takes a special kind of talent to pull off the sad, jazzy, country-tinged songs that make up Natural Conclusion. These are heavy tunes about self-doubt, distance, loneliness and heartbreak, the impact of each maximized by the cascading pianos, strings and slide guitars that dot the record. There may not be a finer opener to an album than “Chosen,” all year, a song that showcases everything that makes Cousins great and whose slow, steady build from barely a whisper to a lush, driving tune by the end is breathtakingly beautiful and effective. There’s a chance this isn’t a folk record, that it’s a pop record or a country record or a country-pop record, I don’t know/care- good albums are good albums, and we need more of those in our lives.