Autumn sends us running for those cozy coffee houses, full of crazed beatniks and their guitars. Folk music is the price we pay for civilization after all (and caffeine served at reasonable prices). Fair warning: today’s post takes a rather broad swipe at the folk idiom. Some here may not even know their membership is paid up.
What do former capital cities do? One day you’re where the political action is and then it’s all about Berlin (again). That’s Bonn Germany’s crisis. Perhaps that explains The Manana People. Their two albums tend to veer all over with no fixed address genre-wise. Of course, that makes for a special variety of tunes. 2019’s Princess Diana is a marvelous collection of freak folk oddities: a bit of Bombadil, some sixties country-folk, and a whole lot ironic detachment. The record is a celebration of horror, cinematic or otherwise. “Anthropophagus” riffs on a 1980 Italian horror film (featuring some German tourist victims, of course) while “A Silly Horror Song,” “People Don’t Know They’re Dead,” and “The Manana People Fight the Undead” develop the theme further. The songs are great, both fun and hummable, combining folk rock with the occasional 1950s space movie sounds. Opening cuts “Remember I Was Movies” and “We’re Seagulls” are representative of the twin foci, full of nice folky vocal harmonies and banjos on the former and country-folk plus spacey effects defining the latter. “Matchstick” offers something a bit different, vibing a cross fertilization between Jethro Tull and You Won’t. This year’s long player Song Cycle, Or Music For The End Of Our Times makes the horror more everyday but the songs remain the same, reliably good. “Amputated Memory” is a brilliant folk-plus journey, so warm and familiar, except when it isn’t. Outlier alert: “It’s All Really Messed Up.” This one sounds very 10cc.
For balladeer Bob Moston performing under the name the Merrym’n is all about Stoke-on-Trent, working class life, and endearing small town sentiment. Over the course of four albums and few EPs and singles he’s sung about “Cow Tipping,” “Brown Sauce,” “The Blue Rinse Brigade,” “Forgotten Railway Stations,” and more. The brief was evident on his 2015 debut album Black Over Bill’s Mother featuring “I Was Born in Stoke-On-Trent.” His home town loyalty reappeared on 2017’s Life, On VHS with “Ay Up, Ow At, Orate?” (local slang for ‘hello, how are you, are you OK?’). His musical approach ranges from ‘traditional’ to ‘going-electric’ kinds of folk – think Donovan or a less angry Jake Bugg. There’s plenty of the trad feel on the early and most recent albums, with a few in between. 2018’s Post-Industrial Apocalypse embellishes the classic folk ballad style of “The Night the Canal Collapsed” with some gritty organ and rumbly guitar, while the vocal style reminiscent of Australian balladeer Darren Hanlon. By contrast, “Working Class Area” sounds a bit more Billy Bragg. For the more electric ‘new folk’ sound “Anna of the Five Towns” and “North Wales Expressway” turn up the electric guitar amplifiers. But for something different again, 2021’s More from Merrym’n moves into pop folk territory with the lilting, hooky “Statue of Josiah.” With his focus on class and home and writing memorable tunes Merrym’n is working all sides of the Stoke-on-Trent folk street.
Growing up is hard to do. That’s the message on Blue Cabinet, the new album from Nashville band Bats. Teen alienation appeals mostly to those going through it but sometimes a writer can draw the not-so-innocent bystanders in. Bats’ creative force Jess Awh is that kind of writer. The images here are oh-so relatable, regardless of age. Sonically the record has an assured Mary Lou Lord pop folk style with some country shading here and there. “New Job” sets the tonal scene, effectively capturing the heartbreak of teen friend separation. “We All Miss the Football Season” is a bit poppier while maintaining a dark lyrical demeanor. Keyboards are the star on this track, adding a droll undercurrent. Some tracks here are straight up folk country ballads, e.g. “Violets” and “Spinnerbait.” Others like “Cooking with Sarah” and “Quonset Hut” glow with a more buoyant poppy folk feel. Then “Signal Ridge” breaks all the rules with a melody that is equal parts country and jazz tinges. Radio ready single vote goes to “Golden Spoon.” Such smooth vocals offset by some sweet fiddle work.
Herr Wade is a duo comprised of Germany‘s Sebastian Voss (Nah…, The Fisherman and his Soul, Cinema Engines) and Norway’s Jørn O. Åleskjær (The Loch Ness Mouse, Monobird, Sapphire & Steel) and together they’ve created Dreht am Kabel, a record that defies easy sorting by genre. Folk seemed as good as any other possible description. What I love here is the anarchic mix of styles and instruments. Opening cut and title track “Dreht am Kabel” sounds so 1970s folk underlaid with ominous keyboards and what sounds like a helicopter flying near the studio. “Lass sie an” clips along, more 1960s upbeat yet mellow pop. “Bitte sag nicht” has a more mannered 1960s cinematic pop vibe. Then “Askim” gives off the rippling air of an A-ha single. Bossa nova makes an appearance on “Nur Ketchup” cut with some jazzy horns. The record is mostly sung in German, which sounds cool in English and just clear and straightforward to Germans. For a spot of Norwegian, check out “Altenberge.” Overall I’d say Dreht am Kabel is a mad happy collection of sonic treats, one the whole extended family will enjoy.
Imagine They Might Be Giants on a turn down day and you might have a Maestro Collage record. The band sometimes sound bubbly and winsome but their lyrical content is more akin to Fountain of Wayne’s troubled suburbia. Magnetic Fields are probably a better comparitor on their 2020 debut album Otter. Just check out the twin surge of acoustic guitars and homoerotic imagery. 2021 EP Studio 54 dials up the not-so-subtle social critique of ‘socialite excess’ in a jaunty Elephant 6 style, particularly on the almost title track “Wine at Studio 54.” Then late in 2021 the band released their magnus opus LP New York, a sprawling love letter (or restraining order?) aimed at their home state. Like Stephen Merritt’s 69 Love Songs this release is crammed with diverging musical styles and pointed social commentary. The original release had 20 songs, the re-release 25. “B-B-Barricade” is one part folk dirge, one part of church hymn. “Montagues and Capulets” is an alluring spoken word folk drone. “Float Over D’arcy” brings a bit of guitar distortion to an Apples in Stereo feel. The extended LP version even caps its NYC cred with mean covers of the Velvet Underground. But my fave track amid all this goodness is “State of Sugar Maple,” a rather out-of-character straight-up poprock single.
Dig out that wool overcoat and scarf now or all the best seats will be gone. Folk, creatively defined, is breaking out all over this fall. Get your curated collection started here.
Photo courtesy Alex Streif.