Colin Newman’s solo output is largely and criminally overlooked. After exhausting the Wire discography and generally being more fond of their more melodic moments his solo explorations throughout the 80′s are something of a godsend. Like any good solo undertaking, his best songs are found the deeper in you dig. I’ll never understand the phenomena, the only thing I can think of is that when those briefly cast aside peak creative moments occur they need just a bit longer to ruminate and by that time the record has been sent off. Like those same forces at play when your soon to be favorite album doesn’t make complete sense at first but leaves you longing for it all the same.
The following appeared in the Report Vol. I. The Report is a bi-annual journal containing musings on contemporary art and music.
"Freak folk" was almost a dirty phrase from the start, with artists slagging it off and not wanting to be associated with the term, I'll be the first to admit that it scared me away from the new folk movement from the start. And there it is, calling it a "movement", -- troublesome indeed. But in my mind at the time the new collective of artists were born from an entirely different place than where folk had recently meandered during the previous decade. It seemed to hearken back to the similar roots of what brought about the last massive folk revival of the sixties. I kept thinking to myself that it was less directly influenced by sixties musicians themselves, but more so by the “American Primitive” artists that influenced the superstars of Harry Smith’s Anthology. Music suffers when it becomes a lazy derivative of other artists; music blossoms, however, when it is the result of a total immersion, a complete internalization of a full chronology of influences dating back to the primordial sludge of rhythm and rhyme and sound: pre-war blues, gospel, and hymns -- the ancient elements of the folk ether.
There's something of a mirrored synergy between the antiquity of San Francisco's Victorian architecture and the perpetual modernity that permeates through the Bay Areas music environment to this day. While the modern-tinged atmosphere of the music scene can help set the stage for emerging artists from San Francisco, it has also made a creative ceiling that serves to constrict artists at times. The ashes of Haight-Ashbury never seemed to fully settle in the small confines of San Francisco's geographical isolation. For the musically inclined, the idea of what a city was is often considered as important as what it currently is-a sentiment that couldn't be felt more then at the time of the new folk-movement's first arrival in the early 2000's. Whether conscious of it or not, the evolution of progressive music has had its lateral movement drawn upon from what came decades before, with the localized element of where it was created providing the terroir of its birth. While the ability to form an objective point about music history solidifies over time through the lens of hindsight, it's always been an interest of mine to attempt to understand it within the current period of creation. I suppose that the biggest subjective element of music journalism comes in when you begin to hear an emerging sound amongst a group of artists and attempt to cover what can be heard of as a movement of similar sounds.
The disparity of the coverage between the new folk musicians and other independent music happening around the time the movement of musicians was increasingly building up momentum around 2004 with the release of the Golden Apples of the Sun compilation. The latter was a ground breaking collection of songs and artists that would come to define and dominate the folk movement for years to come. Everything mentioned at the time about the artists hinted at the idea that they were something separate from the normal indie gamut of music. The more one delved into the group of artists' music, the more apparent it became that they were tapping into something very different indeed. The attitudes of the artists took on a refreshingly different tone and the idea of an associated collective movement of musicians somehow wasn't immediately dismissed as some quixotic group of hippies playing dress up. The strength of the music combined with its timing was enough to cut through many of the movements detractors. It quickly became clear that to cover a coined musical movement meant to constrict and limit its range. However, I believe it was less of a contrived movement and more of a unique point in time that allowed for a group of musicians to capture the sound in a manner more in line with what their parents listened to before the folk revival of the 1960's. A bit of a baby boomer echo hitting the progressive wall, emanating from the timing of a war dragging on, a monumental moment in civil rights debate, and under the direction of a president no longer philosophically in tune with progress, all of which added up to provide a unique parallel with the very elements that charged their parents creative spirit.
The idea that the artists themselves were consciously conjuring up a collective set of ideals and image was not lost on me, but what overshadowed that was the feeling that their music felt as though it was actually capturing a moment and generation's emotional zentih in a parallel manner to how their parents had. I recall detractors clawing at the forces of Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, Espers, and many other large figures within the folk scene with the same distrust of authenticity as the cynics of the 1960’s who labeled Dylan a poseur while championing lesser known artists as “the real deal.” Of course the new folk artists strayed from folk’s beautifully archaic roots; rather than merely digging them up and trying to replicate them. Instead they embraced our generation’s never-ending music libraries (thanks to downloading and obsessive collecting). It was this unique and subtle twist that the artists were putting into their songwriting that enabled them to advance musically upon what came before. Controversial though it may be, I think that folk music is at its best when it evolves along with the times so that it continues on and actually captures the attention of the people. I'd rather not find myself in the shoes of some musical Glenn Beck, fighting to preserve tradition in folk music and dismissing any of its sonic advancement.
Unfortunately, with the rapid pace at which independent artists are expected to mature through their musical output, it often seems to create entirely too quick the "make or break" periods for artists. With the weight of the folk movement upon the artists of the Bay Area, it was soon apparent that, while it motivated some to appeal to their newly uncovered wider audience, others felt alienated and they removed themselves from the music scene altogether. This was only exacerbated by the fact that many of the artists had moved on and relocated to other cities. This period seemed to coincide with the next musical sound emerging at the time, one which saw increased musical experimentation on the part of the artists that often strayed even further away from its folk associations. With the folk movement fracturing along the three dimentions of maturation, evolution and disenchantment, it made for an increasingly interesting music scene, albeit at the cost of a cohesive and collectivist feeling.
However thick a fog San Francisco's music scene has always been shrouded within, I feel as though it does clear often enough to reveal what has long been an undeservedly overlooked musical atmosphere. Though it seemed for awhile that a lot of momentum had been lost for emerging Folk influenced artists in the bay area, there seems to be a new energy in the air for many originally overlooked artists and also new musicians just beginning to surface. Of the musicians that evolved and were overlooked the first time around two musicians immediately come to mind that exemplify those paths, respectively they are Lily Maring, currently of Grass Widow and previously of Yes Please and Joseph Childress. Maring's folky roots blossomed into some of the more intriguing experimental music in the Bay Area which found her laying down soaring looped vocal harmonies that rivaled the likes of the more recent Julianna Barwick. Unfortunately much of her experimentation went largely unrecorded and she soon evolved further to the garage spurned mutli-part harmony laden hooks of Grass Widow. Not so much chasing trends, it seems Lily Maring has grown up along with the rest of San Francisco. Now, she's arrived at the latest step of recognized music in San Francisco, one that is revisiting garage rock through a thick melodic spun grunge lens. Finally, it would be a crime to not draw attention to who in my opinion was the single most overlooked musician of the whole of the new Folk movement, Joseph Childress. Again, as the story goes, though with a voice that silenced all in attendance and his live shows drawing near legendary status--his recorded output was nigh impossible to find and the only real means to obtain them was through a friend traded CD-R of demos. These original demos, along with a recently recorded full length album should be made available sometime in 2010. Finally, I just would like to acknowledge what an incredible experience it was to be able to document and be immersed in such a diverse and rich musical climate for years. I'm constantly reminded of how drastically the musician/journalist role has changed from one of mistrust to one another to one of friendship and symbiosis. A decade of well known, yet humble musicians, has made for in my opinion the most innovative and intriguing musical era yet.
Ed Ball's repertoire is extremely varied and somewhat confusing to navigate. Even within The Times catalog the difference between Ball's first music with them compared to his later 80's releases is night and day. It's easier to follow his music output by era but in doing so most will overlook his later Times releases that showcased some of his strongest writing. Falling somewhere between My Bloody Valentine and early New Order-but to my ears sounding even more contemporary. He conjures something more akin to Greatest Hits latest songs over the past year.