Tag Archives: folk

Modern Concepts: Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown

When my friend Nick told me about the existence of this album, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t found it before then. First off, I’m a concept album nut – especially when there’s a cohesive narrative as well as a unifying theme (which I suppose is the distinction between concept album and actual ‘rock opera’, but the line is often blurry). The fact that it has a cast of characters and a different person portraying each one is icing on the cake. Secondly, the story is taken from the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in Greek myth – I can never get enough mythology – transplanted into what feels like Depression-era America (everyone lookin’ for work, etc), which imagines the story fantastically. Thirdly, it’s some of the best folk I’ve ever heard. The harmonies, the melodies, the instrumentation are all absolutely top-notch.

One simple fact about the cast here that nevertheless improves the listening experience immensely is that no character sounds remotely like any other character. Anais Mitchell herself has a sprightly, innocent voice with incredible vibrato, which initially seems jarring, but handles Eurydice’s transformation from wide-eyed wonder to sorrow surprisingly easily, as she laments the empty promises she’s received in “Flowers (Eurydice’s Song)”. What’s also very effective about it is that her voice is easily discernible when it pops up in ensemble choruses that are representing the denizens of Hadestown – your being able to hear her marks her as one of the masses from that point on.

The other female main character is Hades’ wife, Persephone, as played by Ani DiFranco who has a lower and freer quality to her voice than Mitchell – she takes her time and gives an enticing performance on her character’s main song, “Our Lady of the Underground”, claiming to be the cure for all those that are ailing from being underground in Hadestown too long. She offers sunshine and wind and all the luxuries not easily available to those on the inside, which gives you a good picture of the racquet that she and Hades are running there. She remains more than a one-dimensional character, however, as she also has moments of poignancy, pleading the case to Hades for Orpheus and Eurydice to unite after hearing him sing in “How Long?” (which actually appeared  on Mitchell’s previous album The Brightness as “Hades and Persephone”), as bedroom chat between the couple.

Following that, Justin Vernon picks up the story as Orpheus himself, retelling the story of how Hades and Persephone themselves were once young and how they came to be entwined and how Hades’ own heart is not so hard as it seems (“suddenly Hades was only a man”) – another plea to both Hades himself and the people in Hadestown to free Eurydice, in “Epic (Part II)”. It picks up the tune from part 1 earlier in the album which describes how mean and old mean old Hades really is. Vernon, he of Bon Iver, handles the constant pain and occasional joy that a god of music such as Orpheus might experience. He often hits the high notes in this that he’s famous for, but actually manages to give great performances from all over his range. The one quibble with this I have that I have a real hard time even arguing is the fact that all of his vocals are harmonized. I mean, it sort of fits that everything Orpheus sings would be in harmony, but the fact that he is the only one on the whole album whose vocals are treated that way takes me out of it a little bit – pulls me out of the fact that I’m listening to a play/story unfold and makes it sound a little more like just standard song vocals than a character delivering dialogue/lyrics. The harmonies themselves are even fantastic! It just is not consistent and makes it sounds weird when he interacts with other characters. But a very minor issue.

Greg Brown, with his lugubrious voice, plays Hades, every note that he sings screaming ‘shady’, ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘unbelievably confident’. He has an incredibly rich voice that sounds totally at home commanding his citizens to slave away working on “Why We Build the Wall”, as they repeat his propaganda back to him in an ever-lengthening chain of word or attempting to woo Eurydice to come work for him on “Hey, Little Songbird”, brushing away any of Orpheus’ credibility and replacing it with the promise of a paycheck. A more perfect villain’s voice I cannot imagine.

Ben Knox Miller only appears a couple times on Hadestown, as do the Haden triplets, but both are difficult to forget once you’ve heard them. Miller sounds like an old rambling bluesman in his turn as Hermes, presumably a friend of Orpheus and Eurydice as he chimes in on the popular opinion of Hadestown on the big showpiece that incorporates most of the characters in the play on the upbeat “Way Down Hadestown”. The other track he’s one, “Wait For Me”, he spends in reverent whispers as he gives Orpheus instructions on how to get into Hadestown with a few ominous turns of phrase  – “If all you got it your own two legs/just be glad you got ’em”. The voice he uses for his two appearances actually vary quite a bit, but both fit the mood of the song so absolutely and lend credence to the narrative.

The Haden triplets play the Fates, and what you get here is three ladies with remarkably similar voice doing all kinds of harmonic acrobatics, as they assure Eurydice that trying to get yourself some money and a steady job ain’t the worst thing in the world in “When the Chips Are Down”. The way their vocals interweave and layers on repeated lines is spellbinding and are unfortunately here to mainly dispense hard truths to our heroes.

It’s never less than a satisfying experience listening to the first folk opera I’ve ever heard, and holds my attention utterly. The songs all vary pretty significantly and the different vocals are a treat to listen to. This actually got me onto Anais Mitchell’s entire discography and she has become one of my absolute favourite folk artists because of it (her recent album with Jefferson Hamer recounting old English folk songs, Child Ballads, is fantastic)!

“Flowers (Eurydice’s Song)”:

“Our Lady of the Underground”:

“Epic (Part II)”:

“Why We Build the Wall”:

“Way Down Hadestown”:

“When the Chips Are Down”:

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Toxic Folk Syndrome: Seth Lakeman’s Kitty Jay

It’s funny – I can’t actually remember how I got turned onto Seth Lakeman in the first place, but I’m so glad that I did. Seth Lakeman was the first folk artist that I got into that wasn’t Simon & Garfunkel or Bob Dylan. The first apart from from the “dash rock” appellation, yes, but also the first taste of English folk music rather than the New York sound of the 60s. It was the first time that I’d heard folk music as possessing the sound of the people of a country rather than “pop songs with acoustic guitars” (as I thought of it then), as the entire album is based on myths and legends based around the Dartmoor area of England. I’m an Anglophile and a history nut, so the ideas of getting deep into the history and fantasy of a specific region though these narrative songs that sounded like they had travelled many a year to reach my ears had me excited beyond measure. The other attraction for me is that the album was mostly based around the fiddle rather than the guitar, and Lakeman’s prowess with the instrument is gobsmacking.

Apart from a few moans from the double bass, this song is all layers of violin on top of each other, zigging and zagging closer and closer but never quite hitting and all going a hundred miles an hour. The frantic violin lines convey the sheer “Terror [that] broke her sleep”, as the narrative unfolds of someone standing at the grave of Kitty Jay, trying to piece together what had happened to her. It’s left unclear, as, indeed, the actual legend is – the only speculation in the song is the couplet “Never guessed it with his bare hands/Call the Devil the mark of man.” The backing of the song, however, gives a profound sense of confusion with the violins racing, harmonizing without any grounding presence; coalescing and then drifting apart again.

The sorrow comes from Lakeman’s vocal, musing “poor Kitty Jay”, eyes shut tight as he contemplates the tragedy he’s witnessing 150 years too late. His haughty voice trills on “prayer” as he hopes that “this silent prayer/it should paint some peace on her grave.” It’s not silent, of course, but that’s because we’re hearing what’s going on inside his head. The vocals/thoughts are the only things that the violins seem to respond to. As he crescendoes, so do they, as they’re brought in line for a moment as he tries to make sense of everything, but fall back into their chaotic pattern as he determines “something broke her sleep”. When he reiterates and replaces “something” with “terror”, that is when the bass begins its sinister moan.

A fantastic, energetic folk song and one where the instrumentals tell as much story as the vocals, “Kitty Jay” is the shining jewel in Lakeman’s impressive folk oeuvre in this blogger’s opinion. In subsequent albums, he would often relegate the violin to a smaller role in favour of the more immediate and expressive acoustic guitar – and creates some damn good tunes doing so – but the magic comes alive for me when he reaches for the smaller instrument.

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Colin Meloy Debuts A New Song

I just began to catch up with Jian Ghomeshi’s Q (podcast edition), and of course had to grab the one where he visited Portland. The politics, culture and topics discussed on the show seem a perfect fit with the notoriously hip town. The fact that tipped me over to that episode first, however, was the fact that Colin Meloy, of my favourite band The Decemberists*, would be performing. Little did I know that he would actually be debuting a new song (that he wrote that morning, no less!) It is, of course, everything I love about his songwriting, especially that displayed on the Long Live the King EP, which is the Decembs most recent output.

“Carolina Low”, much like “E. Watson” and “Burying Davy” before it, are starting to build a subcategory in their oeuvre of these minor-key rambling ballads, that sound very much like they emanate from the 19th-century hills and mountains of America, both in tune and narrative. It’s very much the other side of the coin from their jauntier work a la “The Legionnaire’s Lament” or “The Chimbley Sweep”, which still told detail-oriented stories, but just seemed to do more reveling in the fact that they were being told. These days, Meloy seems to get right behind those eyes and grab at the emotions, the toil and the daily hardships (see also, “Rox in the Box”), with melodies richer and more sombre. It seems that he is hearkening back to some of the older traditional folk tunes (a la “Roving Gambler”, “Blues Run the Game” or even “House of the Rising Sun” before the Animals got ahold of it) and attempting to add his own to the canon, much in the way that some modern classical composers do.

If this is pointing towards a further direction for what Meloy announced would be the band’s upcoming album, or even if he releases a folk album solo, I will be very happy indeed.

*Yes, I also claim Van der Graaf Generator as my favourite band. No, it’s not any others. Just those two. For different reasons.

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Fare Thee Well: The Story of Inside Llewyn Davis in a Single Song

*SPOILER WARNING: This review ruins some key moments in Inside Llewyn Davis, so beware if you’ve not seen it yet!*

 

 

Ever since the day after I got to see the Coen Bros.’ Inside Llewyn Davis, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack almost incessantly. What struck me in some of my repeated listens were two versions of the same song that more or less bookend the album – “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”. In thinking about it further and reflecting on the movie afterwards, that this song actually encapsulates much of the character development and plot found in the movie. Indeed, much of the movie actually revolves around this song.

We’re introduced to the song when Llewyn puts on the album that he and his now-deceased partner Mike Timson put out (played in a vocal cameo by Marcus Mumford). It’s the cut we hear from the album and, presumably, it was the lead track/single, as the first four words of the song comprise the title of the album (“If I Had Wings”). Despite its slightly somber title, their version has a fairly upbeat poppy (for 60s folk) arrangement in 4/4, with some interlocking fingerpicking parts with a guitar and banjo and a break for a fiddle solo.With Mike taking the high parts in their two-part harmonies, his voice easily dominates over Llewyn’s lower one. This is, essentially, the type of music bigwig Sal Grossman tells Llewyn he should be involved in in Chicago after Llewyn plays him a song from his solo record, and, it seems, the exact type of music that Llewyn wants to get away from.

While it doesn’t seem that Llewyn was particularly glad of his partner’s dead, it’s clear that he did see it as a chance to establish his own voice, and play the way he wants to play, as evidenced by the scene in which he’s staying over at the house of a professor friend of his. He and his wife ask Llewyn to play a song after dinner, to which he begrudgingly obliges. He begins to play “Fare Thee Well” (a very different version, which we’d hear later) and the wife begins to sing the high harmony, which causes Llewyn to stop playing. “But that was Mike’s part!” she claims, to which Llewyn responds “Fuck Mike’s part!” He then goes on about not wanting to do what he does for a living on command, for free just to entertain people. The idea of being beholden to his past career and replicating what worked in the past to gain any sort of attention or acclaim in anathema to Llewyn. He wants to do it absolutely his way, which why he says no to Sal Grossman.

Towards the end of the film, we see Llewyn’s performance from the opening of it, but where one song was omitted at the beginning, here we get to see it in full – “Fare Thee Well”. It’s stripped down to just its basic chords, and put in a more insistent, more lyrical 3/4, as we get to hear the melody soar for the first time, with Llewyn putting his heart into it. “I have a man/who’s long and tall” has been changed to “the woman I love/is long and tall” as Llewyn tries to put as much of himself in the song as possible (his semi-requited for love for Jean, chiefly), also adding the stanza “one of these mornings/it won’t be long/you’ll call my name/and I’ll be gone” that wasn’t in the first version – Llewyn clearly doesn’t want to stick around Greenwich Village forever after the time he’s had. At the same time, performing that song live and accepting it back into his life after his history with it allows him to literally say goodbye to his partner and that chapter of career and go forward his way, for whatever fortune that brings him.

Llewyn likes his folk pure as he can get it, (as you see his disdain for the quartet of minty-sweatered college boys singing “The Auld Triangle”) and is trying to be both successful and honest in a world which rarely rewards both in the same way. The stark contrast in the different versions of “Fare Thee Well” go a long way in showing Llewyn’s attitude towards music (ostensibly,  his life) which, in turn, gives an insight into why he often seems to make the odd decisions he does in the movie and ends up where he does.

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#24: Raine Maida – We All Get Lighter

(Kingnoise Records, 2013)

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(Image from confrontmagazine.com)

It’s been a long road. Our Lady Peace was one of my favourite bands in high school, and my fondness for their first four albums has never really diminished. It was after Spiritual Machines that the change started (new guitarist, new producer, no falsetto!?), and Healthy in Paranoid Times when I parted company with the band. I would listen to the occasional single and then turn back around, disappointed. Their most recent, Curve, caught my ear and kept me there. It wasn’t a matter of ‘returning’ to an earlier period in the band’s life as was promised quite a few times. Can’t step in the same river twice and all that. It was more as if both they and I were more comfortable with the band that they had become. It only does so good to stamp your foot and say ‘where’s the falsetto?’ and ‘where are the sweet riffs?’ because you’re not going to find them. The band has ten plus years of time put in since then, and they have all, obviously, matured. And, in a way, it got me ready for this album.

I bypassed Maida’s first solo album, The Hunter’s Lullaby, as I was still not ready to accept the fact that the band I loved had changed; hearing their lead singer doing singer-songwriter material was NOT going to help with that. Having enjoyed the approach on Curve, however, and hearing the lead single from the album (the brass-tinger folk of “Montreal”), I decided to make the leap.

The instrumentation is the first thing that struck me, as the first track on the album (the provocatively titled “How to Kill A Man”) begins with a sharp violin tremolo and female backup singers beautifully harmonizing on the chorus; the aforementioned “Montreal” has a jaunty horn line adorning the hook; both “Rising Tide” and “Numbers” employ drum machines, which I never imagined I’d hear paired with Maida’s voice. It’s fun to hear all different kinds of instruments being drawn on to fill out and suit each track (the anarchic, jazzy trumpet on “Rising Tide” is not something I expected to hear! It almost sounds like a brass line from Radiohead’s “The National Anthem) – it makes each song stand out more. This is especially true after being used to mostly hearing him front a guitar-bass-drum trio for so long. The album sounds quite lush as a result. It’s sparse when it needs to be, but the range of frequencies is filled out quite nicely as each track progresses.

Maida has managed to find a second somewhat unique voice after dropping his down post-Spiritual Machines. His assured baritone carries the melodies he’s written quite nicely, though it feels as if its timbre is lending the proceedings a more melancholic air – even the joyous-sounding “Montreal” feels bittersweet because of it. The best example on the album is probably the appropriately sombre “How to Kill A Man.” The melody is ponderous, as I have found they have been on the last couple of OLP releases, but not in the least bit boring (he commits a brief brush with his old falsetto during the verses) – the multiple Maida vocal tracks move smoothly with the backing vocals and manage to hit just the right peaks to create a haunting effect on “bury your heart with this guilt and regret/it’s the surest way there is to kill a man.”

At only eight tracks and 32 minutes, this is one of the shortest modern albums I’ve seen, not that I begrudge Raine Maida for being selective with his track choices – I’d rather have a fantastic short album than a decent longer one. And this one falls somewhere in between. Each track stands on its own quite easily, though the two singles (“Montreal” and “SOS”) are apparent, being the only ones that have notable hooks. The orchestral arrangements are a fantastic compliment to Maida’s voice, and I hope there are more of them in the future. My one complaint would perhaps be that the arrangements are at certain points more interesting than the melodies themselves! Nevertheless, a quite good collection of songs worth hearing, especially if you’re in a calm, introspective mood.

7.5/10

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