A Freak Folk Journal

I’ve been exploring the music that is being called freak folk or psych folk or avant folk or psych-Americana or New Weird America or whatever, which is being made by artists that are being called hippies. Artists frequently cited as forebears include Syd Barrett, Vashti Bunyan, and John Fahey. Like most labels, these ones are kind of silly and aren’t perfectly appropriate for all of the artists that get grouped under their umbrella; some of these artists aren’t very folky at all and some of them aren’t very freaky or psychedelic, and I don’t know that all of them are very hippie-ish. But they do share a bit of a hippie vibe and some musical weirdness of one kind or another, and they’re often not many degrees of separation from Devendra Banhart (who I would call a hippie). So, appropriately or not, for the duration of this post let’s group these hippies together and call their music freak folk.

I started into freak folk by way of Wilco, which may sound incongruous, but these days my musical world revolves around Wilco, so that explains it. Glen Kotche, Wilco’s drummer, had this to say about the self-titled debut of a band called Akron/Family: “Love it.” I hadn’t heard of Akron/Family, but like a dutiful fanboy, I checked it out (unlike a dutiful fanboy I haven’t checked out the other four recs he made at Pitchfork).

About Akron/Family: love ’em. They have a unique sound that’s about equal parts Iron & Wine, Radiohead, and Animal Collective. Akron/Family (2005) was culled from an extensive collection of material that was recorded at home, which was subsequently taken into the studio, partly re-recorded, and adorned with some electronic and synth effects, field recordings, and other assorted noises. The noisecraft is great, a highlight being how a creaky rocking chair integrates into “Italy,” but what makes this band special is the songcraft. They naturally transition from mellow to intense to chaotic and back again. Put simply, they put together captivating songs that take you on a ride.

Since Akron/Family kicks so much butt, I went looking for artists that were doing similar things. A little internet searching led me to a few articles about freak folk. The one name that always came up was Devendra Banhart, who is supposedly the embodiment of weird hippie folksterism, so I checked him out. Turns out that his music isn’t all that interesting. For one thing, his albums are way too long for what he’s doing. His songs are, for the most part, simple—I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see a spare acoustic version of “The Itsy-bitsy Spider” show up on a future album—and there’s not much that’s unique or intriguing in his sound besides a trying-too-hard-to-be-weird vibrato that I find off-putting, so his albums can get pretty monotonous. He does have some good stuff—you could make a very good 40-minute, eleven-song album from the two behemoths that I’ve listened to (Cripple Crow (2005) and Nino Rojo(2004)). On the cutting room floor would definitely be the one that goes “And hey there mister happy squid, you move so psychedelically/ You hypnotize with your magic dance all the animals in the sea/ For sure.”

Devendra Banhart’s good buddy Andy Cabic is Vetiver, whose self-titled debut has pretty much the same basic folky fingerstyle acoustic guitar sound as Banhart but with a more prominent string section. Compared to Banhart, Vetiver’s melodies are nicer, the vocals are less annoying, and the album is shorter, so I definitely would rate Vetiver higher, even if his music isn’t all that special.

Joanna Newsom is probably just below Banhart in terms of prominence in the scene. She has a very spare sound—she’s usually just singing along with her harp, piano, or harpsichord accompaniment. Her harp accompaniment is surprisingly appropriate for her relatively simple folk tunes. It makes me wonder why I haven’t heard the harp used this way before. What most makes Newsom stand out is her strange voice. Some will find it shrill and annoying, and I admit it’s kind of ugly, but I find it very intriguing and I think she uses it well. I especially like when she overdubs several vocal tracks at climactic moments of a few songs to make a super-shrill chorus of Joanna Newsoms, which gives those songs a lot of shape and movement. It seems that Newsom’s lyrics are as important as the music, but I don’t know what she’s saying, if anything. I can say that the words sound good together as she sings them.

From ‘Listeners Also Bought’ lists at Amazon and iTunes I came across School of the Flower (2005) and The Sun Awakens (2006) by Six Organs of Admittance, a project of Comets on Fire’s Ben Chasny. There are a lot of different things going on here, from simple, delicate, melodic tunes to big, spacey, drone-drenched, post-rock-like instrumentals. Chasny’s fingerstyle acoustic guitar is the common element throughout; it’s usually up front in the mix, with drones and noises a bit further back, and percussion, which can be wildly free-form, way back. This stuff is more enjoyable than it has any right to be. There’s a lot of highly repetitive guitar phrases, persistent noise, and long instrumental tracks in which not a lot happens, but it all comes together nicely. It helps that Chasny takes a good variety of approaches.

Grizzly Bear was mentioned in this recent New York Times article. Their Horn of Plenty (2004) is a decidedly lo-fi mix of a lot of found sounds, synth effects, and non-standard percussion adorning simple, consistently mellow tunes. The fuzzy lo-fi production gives a very shut-in feeling, which, combined with the persistent dearth of energy, can wear on you over the course of the album. But I won’t write them off. They have an album on the way and I’m interested to see what they can do with a little bit of money behind them.

I wouldn’t group Animal Collective and CocoRosie in with the artists I’ve mentioned so far, but they sometimes get mentioned as part of the scene and there is a lot of listener overlap. Animal Collective is pretty cool. They’re not real consistent, but the sonic textures that they put together and their communal energy make for a fun listen. I don’t like CocoRosie. The cartoonish Billie Holiday impersonation that one of the vocalists does drives me up the wall. Devendra Banhart sings on some of their tracks as well, which doesn’t help.

There are quite a few other obscure artists that are making this kind of music that I’m less familiar with and am curious to hear more from. I’ve found the exploration rewarding, even if I haven’t found anyone to rival Akron/Family. Despite the collective flaws, the biggest one being a tendency to write boring songs, I like spending time with these artists and I really like the sounds that they’re making. There’s something about the mix of old American folk sounds and whacked-out weirdness that appeals to me.

5 Favorite albums of freak folk:
Akron/Family—Akron/Family (2005)
Akron/Family and Angels of Light—Akron/Famiy and Angels of Light (split LP; 2005)
Six Organs of Admittance—School of the Flower (2005)
Joanna Newsom—The Milk-eyed Mender (2004)
Vetiver—Vetiver (2004)

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5 thoughts on “A Freak Folk Journal

  1. I’m excited about this post. Six Organs is awesome, never heard of them before.

    Joanna Newsom has always annoyed me, but she’s hugely popular with the indie kids. I can do a song here and there but a whole album, no way.

    Akron/Family I’ve never heard, this rules. Thanks Tom.

  2. Thank you, Susan.

    I can send you tracks from a few other artists that I mentioned and you can post whatever you want to the radioblog. I don’t want to hog it.

  3. I’ve been trying to figure out what makes Devendra “not quite great” for some time now. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t put my finger on it. But you nailed it on the head — too much music for what he’s trying to do. With the three albums of his that I own, I could probably make one really great mix of an album, but with all three, there is just too much filler.

    I like Newsom, though I’ll admit to rarely putting it on.

    And now, based on this piece, I’m definitely checking out Akron. With your feelings for Devendra and Newsom paralleling mine so closely, I can’t imagine I’ll hate it.

  4. Jeremy, enjoy! The Akron/Family songs on the radioblog represent about their wildest stuff. If you like the mellower folky stuff that Banhart does, Akron/Family does that really well too. It’s their ability to do so many things so well that makes me excited about them. I’m jazzed to see what they do on their album coming out at the end of September.

    I’ve also found that I don’t often feel the need to listen to Newsom, even though I like her quite a bit. I think it may have to do with how spare her sound is. It’s really easy to absorb it pretty quickly and there isn’t much to discover over time. I’ve found that the music with more complex sounds and structures is the stuff I go back to over and over.

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