As folk music has evolved, so has the definition of what can be considered “folk music.” ELECTRIC GHOSTS cuts through the definitions and the releases to bring you the best each month has to offer by way of sad music about feelings.
Remember when I complained about the lack of releases on March? Yeah, April was the exact opposite of that. I could have written about 15 or so releases that came out this month, all of which are worth your. Here, though, are the 8 releases spanning the whole gambit of what one might consider ‘folk’ that I think you need to spend some quality time with and your hard-earned money on.
Laura Gibson- Empire Builder
Empire Builder would be a superb album even without the backstory that explains where it came from and what its songs mean, an exquisite record full of articulate songs about real people, real feelings and real consequences. The context that the backstory provides, though, takes this album from ‘really good’ to ‘great,’ as happens when any ‘really good’ album is created out of something real and extraordinary. Empire Builder is the culmination of Gibson’s last four years of life, from moving from one end of the country to the other via the Amtrak line the Empire Builder, looking to reshape her life, get an MFA in writing and learn about herself and the record almost being lost when her apartment was wiped out by an explosion in the East Village of New York City. This is what an honest look at what changing your life and trajectory sounds like.
Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop- Love Letter For Fire
A confession: as a gigantic sap and big fan of both love songs and Sam Beam’s voice, there was very little chance that I was going to dislike Love Letter for Fire (especially given that it seemed stripped of all the weird, jammy jazz that turned me off over the last few Iron & Wine records). The album is essentially a 13-song conversation about all the many things love can and should be. That conversation sometimes sounds like it’s being had by strangers who wrote about the agreed upon topic/angle in separate rooms, though that’s certainly not a criticism- the contrasts between their styles aren’t jarring but complementary, blending together seamlessly via gorgeous harmonies and pleasant melodies. Hoop’s voice is the perfect fit opposite Beam’s, all smoky and warm, tangling itself perfectly with his throughout but strong and captivating enough to stand on her own when they trade verses. Love Letter For Fire is the slow morning album that 2016 had been lacking.
Frightened Rabbit- Painting of a Panic Attack
It’s cool if I shoehorn my definition of ‘folk’ music to include Frightened Rabbit, right? They aren’t sonically folk anymore, really (and haven’t been that for some time now), but Scott Hutchison’s writing is still the same smart and gutting as it’s always been under all these layers, drones and propulsive beats. This is all standard fare for Hutchison- heartbreak, drinking, death and the like- but he does it all better than everyone else, still, cutting to the heart of the matter with straightforward ease and precision time and again. You’re probably not going to feel super uplifted after making your way through this, but that’s the point- misery loves company, as it always has, so might as well sing along with that big chorus and those too-close-to-home verses in (sometimes drunken, sometimes sober) solidarity.
Hayes Carll- Lovers and Leavers
Born out of the ashes of a divorce, Lovers and Leavers is a record that takes stock of the Carll’s life, indexing the stories he’s lived (‘Drive,’ ‘Sake of the Song’), the ones that have broken his heart (‘Good While It Lasted,’ ‘Love That We Need’) and the life unfolding right in front of him (‘The Magic Kid’). There’s not a whole lot, instrumentation-wise, to the album- a guitar, a voice, some percussion, a splash of slide guitar here and some keys there- but the songs still manage to pack the super-sized punch that all great songwriters can wring out of just a few instruments and a few relatable lines. Lovers and Leavers sounds timeless because heartbreak and picking yourself up off the mat always sounds timeless, and it hits hard because guys like Carll and his songwriting guideposts Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Lyle Lovett write about those timeless topics in the sort of way that’s appealing, fresh and true.
Quiet Life- Foggy
There’s a moment every time I'm listening to Foggy that I think I should probably go buy a slightly rusty old car/VW bus, quit my job, finally grow a nasty beard and start driving somewhere, anywhere, with this thing as the soundtrack to it all. It’ll never happen because I’m too much of a square, but I give it a hard thought each time. Created in the dead of summer during some marathon sessions and born out of years on the road, it’s a deft mix of twangy, ramshackle folk and classic rock (with some psychedelic undertones sprinkled about); an album that sounds like the best lost summer soundtrack you’ve ever found in a crate at the local record shop. This is the record Stillwater never got to make (because they were fictional), the one after the hype, pretentiousness, drugs and Penny Lane had worn off and all that was left were memories of the road and the idea that music is supposed to be enjoyable.
Kyle Craft- Dolls of Highland
Dolls of Highland is what it would sound like if you went to that creepy carnival that takes place on the west side of your hometown each July on the hottest days of the year, took a bunch of drugs and then wrote a record while watching dudes breathe fire and swallow swords. It is undeniably weird, but these songs are also undeniably well-written, compelling and brilliant; Craft’s distinct, slightly-unhinged voice working perfectly over the parlor pianos, wailing harmonicas, blaring horns and bouncing rhythms that make up the 12 songs on the record. Grab some headphones, this interview for fantastic context and prepare to get a little weird, you guys.
Kevin Morby- Singing Saw
This new Kevin Morby album is my favorite kind of album, the seemingly unassuming, subdued set whose songs slowly, quietly wedge themselves deep in your brain and keep you coming back even though you didn’t know you wanted to. Singing Saw is a log of Morby’s acclimation to a new city (Los Angeles), all explorations and interpretations of new surroundings and how old feelings and old ways of life might fit into it all (and how maybe they don’t). We’ve all lived this record but Kevin Morby sums up that experience better than most.
Fort Frances- Alio
Sometimes you follow a band long enough to witness them continually evolving into the best version of themselves you can imagine them being. For three EPs and now two full-lengths, Fort Frances has been that band for me, each new release containing, to me, the best song they’ve ever put out to that point. Their new album, Alio, finds the band pushing forward on every front, David McMillin, a smart observer and gifted writer who is Ritter-like in his turns of phrase, continuing to refine his writing voice while finding new ways to explore emotional depth and the world around him. The result is the sharpest, smartest release in their catalog, one that sounds both like the old them and the future them, and that’s all we can ask of the bands we love.
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