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In Martin Scorsese’s recent No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger tells the tale of the most famous tantrum in folk-music history: The reaction to Dylan’s fronting what was essentially an electric blues band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Many in the audience booed and wailed as the beloved Bobby tried out his new Stratocaster. Yet none were as piqued as Seeger, a folk fundamentalist if there ever was one. “Goddammit, it’s terrible. You can’t understand it,” the singer and banjoist told the sound man. “If I had an ax, I’d chop the mic cable right now.” According to other sources, Seeger then retreated to his car, rolled up the windows, and refused to come out. According to still others, Dylan was never booed in the first place.
Either way, 31 years seems like long enough for even hard-core “Kumbaya” types to get over their authenticity issues. But Greg Weeks, leader of Philadelphia neo-folk-rock act Espers, is apparently convinced there are folks out there ready to shun his band. “There are certainly people who would say that we’re very far removed from any kind of original folk purism,” the singer/guitarist said in a recent interview. Now, whether these people are flesh and blood or made out of straw is up for debate. Like so many groups in the new folk underground—or, to use Spin terminology, the “freak folk” scene—the three guys and three gals in Espers aren’t so much challenging tradition in a Dylanesque fashion as they are working in a post-Dylan tradition. For a lot of listeners who came of age after 1965, the Dylan-influenced bands listed on Espers’ MySpace page—fusionists such as Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, and Pentangle—are what folk music is all about.
Few of those who know Weeks from his days as a solo artist on space-rock-dominated indie Ba Da Bing! will find the hippie-era sounds on Espers’ latest full-length, II, to be in any way heretical. In fact, if the point of “Like a Rolling Stone” and what came after is that music should be about the search for new sounds and styles, then Espers is actually more Seeger than Dylan—more purist than progressive. Besides an electronic scribble here or a distorted guitar there, II’s medieval-sounding opener, “Dead Queen,” is uninformed by anything that’s happened since the last time semipopular musicians sang of deceased royalty—or 1973, whichever came first. It’s essentially an exercise in plangent, slightly foreboding pastoralism, and if that makes you wonder what the point is, you’ll probably be more interested in what comes next: a series of period-jumbling what-ifs.
According to Weeks, the heaviest of these tunes, “Widow’s Weed,” is so impure that it ought to prompt its own ax-wielding hissy fit. It ain’t all that. But the seamlessness with which the band dovetails placid Britfolk and creepy Brit metal is enough to make you wonder why this sort of thing wasn’t done to death in the early ’70s—or, for that matter, in the early ’00s, an era whose hipster underground is as rife with headbangers as it is with fingerpickers. Ditto for “Dead King,” a très druggy track that conjures old-school folk-rock channeled through Kraftwerkian electronica. Album-closer “Moon Occults the Sun” is more trad, but it does tend to erase the aural difference between some ancient, drone-producing stringed thingy and Weeks’ heavily effected electric guitar.
Call it patchwork. Call it pastiche. But as far as “authenticity” goes, none of the above is as much a stumbling block as Meg Baird’s voice, perhaps the most forthright feature of Espers’ sound. To describe her singing as derivative would be lazy—the word confers a sense of illegitimacy that seldom gets at the heart of a creative product. Still, Baird’s Avalon-evoking vocals, enchanting though they are, seem stuck in a period that might well have predated her birth, which puts them at odds with the rest of what’s going on here. The lyrics hardly help: On “Cruel Storm,” Baird sings of high towers, absent sailors, and a “happy land for the weary maid.”
Such fidelity is a problem inasmuch as you buy into Weeks’ idea of Espers as an outfit that sits to the left of most present-day folk bands. Those who want that to be true will probably have a fit over II, which shows that Weeks’ talent for recombination, no matter how beguiling, isn’t enough to push things forward. Those who don’t will probably be happier. After all, why throw a tantrum when you’ve got an album full of memorable tunes?
Feathers, another large and mostly acoustic new-folk outfit, is unlikely to cause any meltdowns whatsoever. Singer/multi-instrumentalist Meara O’Reilly eschews any talk of Feathers’ forebears, saying instead that she and the rest of this Brattleboro, Vt., octet are simply inspired by one another. Sitar player Greg Petrovato claims that, for his part, he’s ignorant of current trends—which is odd, given that two of he and O’Reilly’s bandmates, Kyle Thomas and Asa Irons, moonlight in Witch, a fashionable doom-metal act that also includes Dinosaur Jr. leader J Mascis.
Even so, Feathers’ first widely available full-length, a reissue of a self-titled vinyl-only LP, does indeed smack of self-imposed exile. Much of that has to do with Thomas, an elfin-voiced vocalist who sounds like Marc Bolan la-la-la-ing his way through a bad head cold. Perhaps because his reedy vocal presence is so distinctive, Thomas, in contrast to Baird, evokes no period more than the one we’re living through right now. That’s not to say that he and his fellow Feathers vocalists come across as up-to-the-minute on such hippified songs as “Silverleaves in the Air of Starseedlings” and “Old Black Hat With a Dandelion Flower.” They just don’t sound like they’re swiping anyone else’s old black hat with a dandelion flower.
Instrumentally, too, the band projects a vibe that’s downright isolationist. Though electric guitars sometimes ring out, much of the consistently excellent Feathers could be rendered with whatever might be lying around your average mountaintop home—exactly the setting in which Irons says he lives. Acoustic guitars and hand drums perform much of the heavy lifting, of course. But there is also a toy xylophone (“Ulna”), some sort of bell or chime (“Past the Moon”), and a banjo with questionable intonation (“Van Rat”). That the tape hisses, bugs buzz, and various band members whistle at random is hardly indicative of any sort of lo-fi ideology. In this case, you may very well be able to judge a record by its smiling-bohemians-gathered-’round-a-campfire cover.
Obviously, it takes more than a yurt in the sticks to make good folk music. And Dylan, like so many of his ’60s peers, lived in New York City when he was getting his start. Thomas & Co., however, have achieved some degree of ur-folk purism by doing things the old-fashioned way: using blackout-proof instruments to entertain themselves. That might explain why Feathers ends with “Come Around,” an honest-to-goodness all-hands-on-deck singalong. “So come around, come around/Feel the air on your cheek,” the band sings on the chorus. “We’ve only so long before our heavens descend/So come around, come around, come around.”
Many of those who supposedly booed Dylan would no doubt applaud the song’s inclusive—not to mention somewhat-throwback—sentiment. That’s the kind of approval that no progressive in her right mind would claim as a badge of honor. But perhaps freak folk isn’t really a progressive’s game. On some level, it’s supposed to be a throwback. Unlike the post-postpunk it’s supplanted as the hipster’s music of choice, it’s not just a simulation of a previous era—it’s a simulation of a previous era that was itself the simulation of a previous era. In other words: These days, a bunch of smiling bohemians gathered ’round a campfire is about as authentic as you can hope for. CP