IN THIS PHOTO: Bon Iver
Why Folk Music Deserves Greater Acclaim
I will, actually, do another feature like this...
IN THIS PHOTO: Joni Mitchell
where I, without much provocation, launch to the defence of an entire genre. It may seem insane but there comes a point where you can only watch so much undue criticism before one needs get involved. Like a decent yet unspectacular wallflower being sneered at my the jocular, ‘cool’ kids: the headmaster has to get involved and bring about some order. In fact, scrap all of that for I am far too wet to explain myself. I have read article and some reviews who claim, without sufficient evidence, Folk is a genre that seems incapable of modernising and diversifying.
IN THIS PHOTO: Billie Marten
They claim – not naming any offenders; lest they be seen as humans – that Folk is a form of music that has not ascended from the simple and hippy-dippy strummers of the 1960s. Before I take my belt off and birch their bottoms purple; I will leap, rather insincerely, to their defence. In order to play Devil’s Advocate – what an awesome title for a show that would be! – there are a lot of Folk artists who, for some reason or other, are incapable of bringing about reappropriation. Whether you deem mainstream stars like Ed Sheeran as Folk or Pop: there is something about that kind of music that is leading journalists and listeners down the wrong course. Naturally, the majority of today’s Folk stars are not going to be at the same level as legends like Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake and Neil Young – nor will they, necessarily, play the same brand of Folk. The new wave of Folk artists drink in different bars and smoke a different brand of cigarette (no that I am condoning smoking: it does look very cool in the context of a Folk article!). Sure, the artists of today take from the greats of yesteryear: it would be incongruence were they to ignore and refute the legacy and inherence of their betters. Too many assume 2017’s flavour of Folk is either the acoustic-strumming kind one might have experienced during the 1960s –away from the incredible core of Folk legends – or is old-fashioned and outdated.
The truth is; twenty-first-century Folk is among the most nimble and interchangeable types of music around – I think, only second to Pop. If one listens to artists like Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell, for example, they get to hear some of the best songwriting you could ever imagine. There is variation in their type of Folk but, largely, it tends to be traditional and ‘softer’, let’s say. The lyrics are incredibly rich and poetic but the compositions, perhaps, tend to stick within boundaries. Maybe there is the assumption Folk of now has not evolved from those days – they might love artists like Joni Mitchell but do not want to see that continue forty-or-so-years down the line. I feel there is a divisionism in perception that assumes Folk is rooted too heavily in the 1960s (or before). One of the reasons I wanted to write this piece is to show how far the genre has progressed. In 2017, there are a lot of artists who like to play the more contemplative and calmer variety of the genre. I will come to some examples but there is, on the other side, a whole group of musicians who bring in other genres – from Pop and Electro-Pop right to Alternative avenues.
IMAGE: The album cover for Bon Iver's 22, A Million
Take an album like 22, A Million: the sensational 2016-released wonder-work from Bon Iver. Justin Vernon is, at his heart, a Folk artist; yet he brings, in this album, so many different sounds and ideas. There are a lot of Electronic inspirations and odd vocal samples. He processes sounds and feeds some through machines: reverses them and creates trippy, far-out whispers. It is an invigorating and heady brew that is best left to the initiated – quite a daunting proposition for those unfamiliar. He is not alone in challenging those who feel Folk is too rigid and ‘square’. Even if you take two of my favourite albums from last year: Billie Marten’s Writing of Blues and Yellows and Julia Jacklin’s Don’t Let the Kids Win; you have a couple of modern, yet bygone-nodding works.
IN THIS PHOTO: Laura Marling
The former is actually my standout from last year because it shows huge maturity and worldliness – despite the fact its author is comfortable in her teens right now. Even though a lot of the music relies on the seductive beauty of Marten’s voice: the way she unfurls her imaginative and stunning songs gives one pause for thought. It is not the aimless and mindless amblings one assumes Folk music is about. Those who get confused between mindless Acoustic-Pop and those artists the Antifolk movement rebelled against decades ago – they pick up a guitar and numbingly mumble about broken hearts, unicorn farts and the government nuking them to sh*t. Yeah, we are in 2017 so there is, one hopes, a fervent brand of a protestor who articulates the cracks and frustrations that run through the spine of the country. Maybe there will be the odd artist who does not convey that anger with the same articulacy and passion as a young Bob Dylan – others who will do so with incredible depth and conviction. Marten, on paper, might strike you as a young songwriter who had not really advanced from the same sort of platforms (literally in some cases) one assumes a busker to play on. That is, frequently, covering other people’s songs with the same sort of energy one would associate with a dog that has just overdosed on morphine – with performances that evoke the same sort of shock and boredom. I grant you, it is complicated differentiating between the genuine pioneers and those who seem beholden to bastardize the good name of Folk. Going back to Billie Marten and she, like 2017-examples Fleet Foxes, Laura Marling and Jesca Hoop; produce music that has romance, fire and enormous nuance. The reason I wanted to single Billie Marten and Julia Jacklin for special commendation because they are young and new artists but between them created some of the finest music of 2016. Marten talked about mental illness, travel and escapism; literature, love and hopelessness in a record that brimmed with compositional innovation, sensationally tender vocals and incredible confidence. Jacklin took a more spirited approach when talking about maturity, her position in life and watching others around her ‘grow’ and manifest a more familiar-orientated life. The Australian newcomer is primed for greatness and shows just what variegated and strength there is in Folk.
This year; Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me collected songs that told the listener about the circumstances of love and loss between Elverum and his late wife, Geneviève Castrée Elverum (and their baby daughter). That is PopMatters’ distillation but it is part of a wider review that heaps praise on a deeply personal and entrancing Folk record. There have been many others this year that demand closer investigation and appreciation. Julie Byrne’s Not Even Happiness and Fleet Foxes’ Crack-Up; Feist’s Pleasure and Aimee Mann’s Mental Illness are very different and unique. Look at each album and, whilst tackling Folk and playing in the genre; they deal with different issues and, actually, sound very different. I argue there is, not only misconception regarding Folk’s sonics but the lyrics one documents. If you take a few of those albums and it is hard to connect them. Aimee Mann’s record deals with some hard subjects and tackling psychological demands – there is a lot more besides on the L.P. – whereas Fleet Foxes’ Crack-Up is a more luscious and ‘accesible’ work.
The vocals on each differ greatly and, aside from sharing Folk D.N.A., there is nothing that suggests they were born from the same mother. Maybe there is a tangible link between, say, Billie Marten, Laura Marling and newcomers like Phoebe Bridgers: the first two have been compared down to their career trajectory and lyrical gifts; Marten and Bridgers share vocal sounds (even if their lyrics are completely distinct). Even artists who approach Folk with greater tenderness and less energy are doing fantastic things – so far removed from those noxious and lamentable Acoustic-Folk acts that garnered such reaction and approbation. Bridgers is a sensational talent I can see going very far. In fact, after Laura Marling released the incredible Semper Femina (baffled it was not shortlisted for a Mercury Prize); I am looking to Marten, Jacklin and Bridgers to see if they bring out albums this/next year. It is exciting seeing young female Folk artists create such world-class music.
IN THIS PHOTO: Julie Byrne
In fact, when I look at the progressive and established Folk brilliance – most of the names that flood to mind are women. Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes and Richard Dawson (his album, Peasant, is worth your time and money) are exceptions in a list that is largely female – when we think of the best Folk albums of the year so far. That is the same as last year, largely. I shall wrap things up but have been annoyed reading articles that have mooted Folk is past its glory days – if it had any at all! There is so much attention on Pop and mainstream artists that many Folk albums get buried and reserved for smaller audiences. Even if the Mercury shortlist does not include that much Folk; one cannot ignore the sensational and consistent joys one can discover in modern Folk. I did not want to go back in time and see why Folk has always been great – I have addressed that in previous articles. I wanted to demonstrate the fact modern Folk deserves appreciation and investigation on its own merits.
IN THIS PHOTO: Jesca Hoop/PHOTO CREDIT: Piper Ferguson
There is so much range and wonder to be found in a single album. It is a genre that is not chained to a particular sound and sensibility. Maybe it is not as racially diverse as other genres – comparatively few black or Asian Folk artists – but is a lot more balanced when it comes to gender and age. Anyone who thinks contemporary Folk does not merit transition to the mainstream – and proper acknowledgement and respect – needs to get their ears on the best albums of this and last year. I have collected a few songs below – taken from some of the best Folk albums of the past two years – that provides a window into a fabulous genre. Take time to have a listen and realise the ‘’F-Word’…
IN THIS PHOTO: Phoebe Bridgers
IS one we should be teaching everyone!