Tag Archives: Folk

Album of the Day: Larkin Grimm, “Chasing an Illusion”

Larkin Grimm has cited jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman as an inspiration for her latest, Chasing an Illusion. The album doesn’t really sound like free jazz, but then, it doesn’t fit neatly into any other genre, either. Grimm’s songs are pretty and fractured, moving from acoustic lyricism to clanking dissonance and feedback, as her lyrics slide from personal confession to semi-occult oddness. The opening track, “Ah Love Is Oceanic Pleasure,” sounds like a Gaelic keen against atmospheric pulsing, hissing, squeaking horror movie backgrounds—like Enya slowly being driven mad by Syd Barrett. “Ah love is oceanic pleasure / No race to finish life / And if I love you at my leisure / Give it time,” she sings, before launching into tarot card references.

“Beautifully Alone” is completely different—like folk via Motown, a pop song about longing for solitude rather than some guy. “When I’m alone with you / I realize our love isn’t real,” she sings cheerfully before “doo-doo-doo”s come in, and the track swings back and forth between praises of love and “dreaming a dream of my own.” “So many images tangled in my head,” she wails, throwing in an incongruous rockabilly growl. It’s sweetly innocent and unsettlingly desperate all at once.

“Fear Transforms into Love” is a psychedelic lament, with feedback hum, a slow Eastern-tinged beat, horns squiggling, and Grimm declaring, “Love turns into pain / I will try not to love you again / I will try not to care.” “I Don’t Believe You” is about sexual assault; last year, Grimm accused Swans frontman and former collaborator Michael Gira of rape. The track is beautifully layered, with Grimm’s own voice multi-tracked, as she sings bitterly, “I wish that I could die / I wish that you would die too.” She touches on similar material in the title track, where her dissonant roars open up: “My heart is empty / My soul is empty too / I feel dead inside / Don’t you?”

Chasing an Illusion feels like a record that shattered and then was reassembled painstakingly from its jagged bits. The result is cracked and misshapen, but more precious for its fissures.

—Noah Berlatsky

Album of the Day: James Elkington, “Wintres Woma”

Before Wintres Woma, James Elkington’s debut solo album, the English expat singer-songwriter had done a respectable 17-year tour of duty. After moving to Chicago in 2000, Elkington took up with Tortoise’s Douglas McCombs as a permanent member of Brokeback and Janet Beveridge Bean (Freakwater, Eleventh Dream Day) to form The Horse’s Ha, all the while maintaining the simmer on his primary group, The Zincs.

Through these projects, Elkington became a go-to collaborator for many Chicago musicians and carved out a personal range of styles that land somewhere in the gray between traditional English folk, scrappy Midwestern indie rock, and Chicago post-rock. The latter fastened him to the city’s improvised music scene in the early years of the 21st century and served as a powerful opportunity to rub elbows with a network of composers from both classical and less formal vernaculars.

As Wintres Woma proves, this constant musical conversation matured Elkington—not only as a fingerstylist of tremendous prowess, but also as a bright and cogent arranger. Though the tender folk incantations of Wintres Woma may seem like a return to his Anglo roots, Elkington revisits these sites with new eyes. Gentle traces of Nic Jones and Bert Jansch are deeply embedded in his style here, but the roguish writhings of Bill Callahan and Nick Cave are equally as present.

Recorded at Wilco’s homebase The Loft, Elkington punches his guitar and voice up into the forefront and embellishes these prime movers with elegant string arrangements—cello, pedal steel, violin, and upright bass. Sessions with The Loft engineer Mark Greenberg yield a remarkable series of recordings—Elkington’s six-string boasts a vivid clarity, Nick Macri’s upright bass is full of warmth, and Tomeka Reid’s cello solo on “Wading the Vapors” roils like a storm under Elkington’s patient arpeggiations. Along with this deft arsenal of players, Elkington helps to breathe new life into a variety of beloved folk traditions in a refreshingly candid manner.

—Joseph Darling

Album of the Day: House and Land, “House and Land”

Even in the year 2017, Appalachia remains a curiosity to most Americans. Despite its rich and fascinating cultural histories, it’s often maligned by those who don’t understand it. But it’s also the home of House and Land, a duo that takes Appalachian music traditions and runs with them in a riveting direction on their debut self-titled LP.

Sally Anne Morgan has lent her fiddle talents to the Black Twig Pickers for several years, while guitarist Sarah Louise Henson has quietly issued a handful of breathtaking solo LPs of fingerpicked, 12-string acoustic guitar since 2015. When the two players combine their talents, the results are an engrossing combination of centuries-old balladeering, pre-war music, and contemporary experimental sounds.

True to old-time form, House and Land’s songs revel in spooky darkness, driven by ghostly, off-kilter notes that raise the hair on the back of your neck. Morgan’s fiddle creaks and moans, while Henson’s hyper-detailed guitar playing alternates among airy flits, glistening cascades, and blooming billows.

Henson and Morgan trade off lead vocal duties, and they harmonize so closely at times, as on the unaccompanied “Johnny,” that their two voices almost sound like one. When Henson sings of the hour of death drawing near and laying garments down, “So time will soon disrobe us all / Of what we now possess,” she sounds as though she’s personally heralding the end of days; her high, fearless delivery makes you inclined to believe her.

But the duo splits from tradition with its addition of shruti box drones, as well as with light touches of percussion from Asheville drummer Thom Nguyen. On “Feather Dove” and “The Day Is Past and Gone,” his soft rumblings and cymbal splashes recall a distant but fierce summer storm, while his clatters in the background of “Unquiet Grave” are a chilling, chaotic foil to the song’s pointed lyrics about pining for a dead lover.

House and Land is an exercise in marrying bygone days with the present—Henson and Morgan assuredly honor the past—but for them, tradition isn’t so much an anchor as it is a springboard toward bold new ideas.

—Allison Hussey

Sarah Louise’s Cosmic Guitar

Sarah Louise

Finding inspiration in the woods and hills around her home in Asheville, North Carolina, 12-string guitarist Sarah Louise imbues her music with a free-flowing, organic quality. Her melodies snake through tributaries and counter-tributaries before building to swirling clusters of tone.

She’s not entirely alone out there. The “solo acoustic guitar” format has been enjoying a renaissance of late, with players like Daniel Bachman and Glenn Jones releasing quietly successful albums full of robust, fingerpicked compositions. Fingerstyle troubadours like Ryley Walker and Steve Gunn have taken the form overground, writing songs that pay homage to the patron saints of the genre: Bert Jansch, purveyor of the florid, left hand-focussed British style of folk baroque, and John Fahey, pioneer of the thoroughly rhythmic, right hand-focussed American Primitive genre. And, indeed, most modern practitioners of the genre tend to oscillate, to varying degrees, between those two figureheads. But Sarah Louise, who creates her own tunings and crams a dozen rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic ideas into any one composition, opts instead to transcend them. As Louise notes, “John Fahey’s writings about the need to master your guitar the way you need to master a woman really put me off. So I never wanted to try to sound like him.”

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Barrio Lindo Builds His Own Sound, Literally

Bario Lindo

Berlin-based, Colombian-Argentine electronic musician and luthier Agustín Rivaldo, aka Barrio Lindo, speaks in quiet, measured phrases, punctuated by the occasional shy laugh. Like his music, his sentences are carefully composed, revealing an underlying sense of wonder and joy. His latest album, Albura, takes its title from the term for the youngest wood on a tree—wood that is very valuable to luthiers like Rivaldo. Its songs reflect the three years Rivaldo spent traveling the world, including his 2015  Varda Artists Residency where he built instruments and created music on a houseboat in Sausalito, California that was once home to Jack Kerouac and Alan Watts.

Albura features collaborations with a stellar roster of South American producers, including Ela Minus, Lulacruza, and Clara Trucco from Weste. It also incorporates a vast array of instruments—charangos, guitars, and a marimba Rivaldo built from older wood he’d replaced on the houseboat.

We spoke with Rivaldo about the recently-released album, and how Varda’s houseboat, instrument-building, and recent travels came together to create his magical, shimmering soundscapes.

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