by Rhapsody Editorial
Cheat Sheet: Alt Folk
By Linda Ryan September 13, 2012 06:13PM
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Listen along to this post with our Cheat Sheet: Alt Folk playlist.
Some folks call it "alt country." Some, "progressive bluegrass." To others, "indie" or "alt folk" feels like a better fit. However you name the genre, what you're listening to are fresh, energized tunes that cut across genres and age demographics with gleeful abandon.
In 2001, ears were challenged when Old Crow Medicine Show released their breakout album, Eutaw, a blazing bluegrass opus lit by the same spark that set punk ablaze decades earlier. On the opposite end of the spectrum, The Avett Brothers' debut, 2002's Country Was, enticed us with its gentle warmth and harmony-laden charm. Too twangy for the indie set and too rocking for traditional country or bluegrass types, these artists would've raised purists' eyebrows at such mega-festivals as Glastonbury and Coachella, or hallowed venues like the Grand Ol' Opry, if they'd shown up there a decade ago.
But today, no one bats an eyelash, and both bands are enjoying unprecedented success. The Avetts' new album, The Carpenter, augments their charming, earthy sound with plucky banjos and tinkling mandolins. And Old Crow Medicine Show's July release, Carry Me Back, took the top spot on Billboard's Bluegrass chart and displays all the joyous exuberance of their older stuff.
Then, of course, there's Mumford & Sons, whose surprise hit "Little Lion Man" proved that bands with banjos could truly rock things out, and The Lumineers, whose "Ho Hey" was part of VH-1's You Oughta Know campaign. Both bands appeal to young indie rock fans as much as progressive bluegrass freaks. Over the past decade, this crazy and hard-to-define sound has orbited around many musical moons, each one adding a bit of momentum to the movement, culminating in an unprecedented number of fine releases in the past two or three years. Here are just a few.
The Avett Brothers
These hard-touring alt folk sensations are in fine, appropriately workmanlike form on The Carpenter, mixing sweet sensitive-bro balladry with just a hint of a hard-rock snarl (see "Paul Newman vs. the Demons," in which the victor is left ambiguous). There's a totally ripping banjo solo on "Live and Die," lovely horns on "Down with the Shine" and some splendid string-section action on the aching, expertly harmonized closer, "Life." But at a brisk 1:37, the sweetly rollicking "Geraldine" almost walks away with this thing. Bet it kills live. [Rob Harvilla]
Old Crow Medicine Show
Carry Me Back
It's hard to keep still while listening to Old Crow Medicine Show: For a band with no drums, the propulsive sound of Carry Me Back is immediate and relentless. This is a good thing. Even on such songs as "Levi," which sadly chronicles the life of O.C.M.S. fan Leevi Barnard, who was shot and killed in Iraq, there is a lively exuberance to the band's old-timey sound that lightens the load of the lyrics. If they can do that to a sad song, just imagine what amped-up barnburners like "Bootlegger's Boy," "Mississippi Saturday Night" and the title track are like. [Linda Ryan]
Comparisons to Mumford & Sons abound, especially with rustic party-anthem "Ho Hey" -- both bands play in the same rootsy playground, and wash their sepia-toned sound with an indie aesthetic. But The Lumineers' kinship with such wordsmiths as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen helps set them apart. Singer Wesley Schultz invokes shades of Dylan in both style and inflection on the lilting "Flowers in Your Hair," while "Slow It Down" does just that, with a sparse, haunting guitar accompanying Schultz's plaintive vocals. "Big Parade" revs up the pace with simplistic rhythms, foot stomps and hand claps. [L.R.]
Mumford & Sons
Sigh No More
Fans of the kind of tattered, emphatic folk-ish rock made famous by everyone from Richard & Linda Thompson to Arcade Fire could do a lot worse than this London four-piece's sterling debut. Augmented by banjo, dobro, horns, mandolin and double bass, among other instruments, these songs (anthems?) do not go gently into that good night. Rather, they explode, careen, effuse, languish, etc. And did we mention the banjo? Super-faves include "The Cave" and "Little Lion Man," and "White Blank Page" is liable to give you goose bumps. Really, there's not a dodgy tune on here. [Garrett Kamps]
Who's Feeling Young Now?
The Punch Brothers' debut was a mind-melting blend of "new grass," and their simpler sophomore record was a necessary demonstration of restraint. Their third balances the musical impulses that pull the band in several directions at once. The fluttering acoustic tapestry of "Movement and Location" sits comfortably in between bluegrass and reverb-soaked, atmospheric rock, while "This Girl" and "Patchwork Girlfriend" are coyly written. But the best stuff comes in the minor-key tunes, like "New York City," that gallop along at a breakneck pace. And yes, without plugging in, they cover Radiohead. [Nate Cavalieri]
Chatham County Line
Sight & Sound
Live albums, with their uneven sound levels and overdubbed crowd noise, are usually best left for completists. But Chatham County Line's Sight & Sound makes a wonderful addition to any fan's collection and also serves as a fine introduction for newcomers, as it includes tracks that span the band's decade-long, five-album career. Pristine sound captures the band's old-timey-yet-modern bluegrass style and their ultra-tight harmonies, along with every luscious banjo pick and fiddle creak. C.C.L. stomp through favorites such as "Crop Comes In," "Birmingham Jail," "Closing Town" and "Route 23." [L.R.]
Trampled by Turtles
Stars and Satellites
Stars and Satellites is a weighty slice of banjo-brushed folk pop that, for the most part, navigates moody, unpredictable waters. Unlike 2010's rather exuberant Palomino, the Duluth, Minn. band's sixth album reflects a somber, introspective side. Opener "Midnight on the Interstate" sets the melancholy tone as Dave Simonett solemnly sings about the downside of being on the road. The mood doesn't lighten on "Alone," a song made potent by the quintet's harmonies, a sad, plucking banjo and strings. Other highlights: The upbeat "Walt Whitman," the haunting "Beautiful" and the bouncing "Sorry." [L.R.]
Shovels & Rope
O' Be Joyful
For a second, all the instruments drop out of the title track of Shovels & Rope's debut, allowing space for Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent to nearly holler, "Ain't it nice to be fightin' on the winning side?" That line's ragged triumph is a good primer on the band: After years as indie songwriters, the duo has put together a collection of scrappy Americana bursting at the seams with joyful energy. Though the most exhilarating moments are sinister, banjo-and-distortion numbers -- like "Birmingham" and "Shank Hill St." -- their harmonies on "Lay Low" and "Carnival" pack an emotional wallop. [N.C.]
Great Lake Swimmers
New Wild Everywhere
Toronto's Great Lake Swimmers know that the way to a person's heart is often through his or her mind. In keeping, they offer clever, thought-provoking lyrics set against atmospheric '70s canyon rock. Sometimes their lo-fi ethos rubs up against wispy shades of Americana, which only adds to their charm. Lush violins and plucky mandolins dot "Ballad of a Fisherman's Wife," which is likely the quietest (yet most searing) protest song about the BP oil spill in the Gulf you'll ever hear. Other highlights include the breezy "Easy Come Easy Go," "New Wild Everywhere" and "On the Water." [L.R.]
The Civil Wars
If you're looking for an album filled with longing, this is for you. If you're looking for introspective, thoughtful folk music, you've found it. If you're looking for the disc Jack White might have made if he had been born and raised in the South, look no further. Joy Williams and John Paul White blend their voices and their abundant talent to create a collection of songs that will transport you to a place you'll never want to leave. While you won't find the fictional Barton Hollow on a map, this raw acoustic release, with its pitch-perfect harmonies, is as real as it gets. [Wendy Lee Nentwig]
The Head and the Heart
The Head and the Heart
The debut of Seattle's aptly named The Head and the Heart is stem-to-stern gauzy intellectualism: tunes about tending gardens, cities with French names and sentimental relationships. Sure, there's a cute naïveté about the whole thing -- when singer Josiah Johnson starts dreaming of faraway places on "Down in the Valley," all he comes up with is "I know there's California, Oklahoma" -- but the sound is as comfortable as your favorite Pendleton, with lots of piano, boy-girl harmonies and warm acoustic guitars. The Etsy-ready aesthetic may be a bit bland, but it's still pleasant, if unassuming. [N.C.]
Categories: Alternative, Cheat Sheet, Folk, Linda Ryan