Freak folk... whatever that means.
"Freak folk: whatever that means"
Mix CD made 9/25/05
1. Skip James - "Devil Got My Woman." A later, far cleaner recording showed up on the soundtrack to "Ghost World", but this is the original recording from sometime in the 1930s, no doubt made in a hotel suite in Memphis or some such (see the cover of "King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. 2" by Robert Johnson). This version is available on CD on "The Complete Early Recordings". I put it on here because I feel that a lot of the strange outsider stuff that birthed the modern "freak folk" (hereafter to be used without quotes) movement has its initial roots in pre-WWII blues artists, who created their music in total isolation and poverty, and were generally ignored and passed over for decades before enjoying any degrees of popular fame. In fact, a significant portion of them died before the mid-60s English blues revival brought them out of obscurity. I can't help but feel that this stuff is the earliest still-extant example of the vaguely defined mentality that all of the shit that's around now has in common. By the way, don't ask me for a more solid explanation of what I'm talking about--I fully admit I don't have one.
2. Skip Spence - "Little Hands". From "Oar", his only solo album, recorded in 1969. Skip Spence was already famous in hippie circles at the time that he did this record, for his tenures in Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape, but he made this record after attacking one of his Moby Grape bandmates and spending a few months committed to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York. He played almost all the instruments himself, and legend has it that it's one of the poorest-selling releases on a major label ever. It's in print now on one of those 60's revival obscurity labels, and the CD has about double the tracks of the original album (lots of half-finished outtakes). This is the first song on the record, and my favorite. Sometimes the songs are totally out there, but there's always a feeling of country-folk-pop brilliance at their core, and this is probably the best example of that.
3. Van Morrison - "Beside You". From his first real solo album (after a singles collection, "T.B. Sheets"), "Astral Weeks." 1968, I think. Van is most famous these days for being the type of soft-rock musician that your mother and radio stations with "lite" in their name love, but not only did he do some amazing and truly weird work early in his career, he still does put totally weird songs right next to MOR pop even on his current records. "Astral Weeks" is without a doubt his best album, and it's dark and depressing as fuck. The backup band were a bunch of renowned jazz studio guys, and they blend perfectly with Van's vocals and guitar playing, but legend has it that Van was so freaked out when he did the album that he recorded all of his tracks alone in a dark room with his back to the control room window. Who knows what the truth is, but I can say that the whole thing bleeds this air of raw desperation, evident in this song with the way that the vocals never seem to follow any particular pattern, slow and mournful one second and rushing to get everything out the next. He's too busy following the emotion to worry about nuance of song, which could have been horrible but instead is brilliant.
4. Nick Drake - "River Man (solo demo)". This song appears on his first record, "Five Leaves Left", with an orchestra backing him up, but this version is from a posthumous comp called "Made To Love Magic". The version with the orchestra is amazing, maybe better than this one, but without it it's much easier to hear just how complicated and interesting the vocal arrangement and guitar patterns are on the song. You might not notice at first, but the entire thing is in 5/4, and he's fingerpicking it out on a nylon-stringed classical guitar. Most people think of Nick Drake as an emo guy, and granted, that's there in a lot of his songs (then again, it's in a lot of Jandek's and Daniel Johnston's, too... more on them in a bit), but he had a lot more going on than just that. All of these guys do; if they didn't, we wouldn't find their stuff so interesting.
5. Tim Buckley - "Monterey". Tim Buckley changed on every album, and he recorded 9 before dying at age 28, which is a pretty incredible workrate. God knows what he would have done if he'd lived. This song is from "Starsailor", which is his most experimental album and which came at the exact midpoint of his career. There's a lot of jazz influence here, as well as a level of sheer unpredictability that can probably be blamed more on Tim's tendency to hate being pigeonholed. He apparently hated it so much that he would change his sound on purpose just to throw off his fans and frustrate his record company. His last couple of albums are sometimes said to be pointless descents into proto-disco, but I find them to be just as worthwhile as his early folk-troubador stuff, or the period from which this song comes... and I have no idea what to call that.
6. Syd Barrett - "Clowns and Jugglers (Octopus)". This song is from Barrett's first solo album, "The Madcap Laughs", and is sometimes called one or the other of those two titles instead of both. Barrett, who sang and played guitar in Pink Floyd until 1967, is the most famous acid casualty as far as I can tell, and there are a lot of urban legends about him, but the truth of the matter is that he had some schizophrenic tendencies, and the huge amounts of acid he was taking merely exacerbated them. Any stories you hear that are wilder are almost certainly untrue. In the early 70s, he made a couple of solo albums with the help of David Gilmour, who had replaced him in Pink Floyd. They are acoustically based and completely lack the experiments in feedback and effects that marked his time in Floyd, but are still based on weird time signatures and abrupt changes that often seem unscripted and to be coming as much from dementia as creativity. That said, I still think they're brilliant. Barrett completely vanished from the public eye in the mid-70s, and as far as I know is still alive and living with his mother in suburban England.
7. Roky Erickson - "True Love Cast Out All Evil." During the mid-60s American garage rock explosion, Roky Erickson sang for Texas's 13th Floor Elevators, most famous for their song "You're Gonna Miss Me" (you heard it in the opening scene of the movie "High Fidelity"). After their second album, he was arrested for the possession of two joints, and due to the vagaries of Texas law ended up serving his sentence in a mental institution, where he was given Thorazine and electroshock treatment. I really don't know of his mental state before going in, but he definitely came out crazy. His post-institutional music is mostly acoustic based, though sometimes he still plays with a full garage band. One thing all of it has in common is his obsession with horror movie concepts ("I Walked With a Zombie," "Creature With The Atom Brain", and "Two-Headed Dog" are some of his most famous song titles). The lyrics mix common themes of life and love with truly strange passages, and he's apparently incoherent in person most of the time, but his gift for pop melodies never went away, as can be seen in this song, from the recent double CD retrospective "I Have Always Been Here Before."
8. Daniel Johnston - "Walking The Cow". This song is from his first real album (he'd self-released a few cassettes before it), "Hi, How Are You?", which came out on Homestead in 1984. Every song I've heard from the album begins with him speaking the title phrase. As far as I'm concerned, the early home-recorded stuff that's muffled and played on guitar/piano/chord organ is Johnston's best work. After Kurt Cobain's vocal appreciation for him got him signed to a major label, he started recording in really nice studios, and it's just not the same. For the record, it was his refusal for a time to take medication that led to the violent episodes (in which he apparently attacked other indie-rock musicians) that eventually led to him being institutionalized. He's been out for around a decade, and apparently is fine these days. While he was in the mental hospital, he'd see any visitors that came, and I heard from a few different people about them making pilgrimages to the hospital in Austin where he was living. Apparently he was really nice to all the fans that came to see him during that time.
9. Jandek - "I Passed By the Building". From "Blue Corpse", which I think came out in 1984 (too lazy to look it up). According to Seth Tisue's website (www.tisue.net/jandek), this song and several others from the album feature a different singer. Who knows who the dude is. I think "Blue Corpse" is the best of the Jandek stuff I've heard so far, and if you looked around on the website you know that the material varies wildly in sound. "Interstellar Discussion", the only other of his albums I've played a lot, is heavier and more electrically based. It's hard to say any more about Jandek, because it's so hard to know what to say, so I'm just gonna move on.
10. Sixteen Horsepower - "Seen What I Saw". From their first album, "Sackcloth and Ashes." This period of their career is far more country than their later stuff, but I still find it sincere and intense, completely avoiding the ersatz country trap that it could have fallen into. There's a lot of Christianity in some of these songs (as well as in David Eugene Edwards' newer band, Woven Hand), but there's also a lot of creepy Southern poverty/death/voodoo/crime imagery, and that plus the really dark sound Sixteen Horsepower's instruments always have is what really wins me over.
11. The Mountain Goats - "Yoga". From the "Devil In The Shortwave" EP. This is from a more recent Mountain Goats record, after the end of the era in which he/they recorded all of their songs on a boombox in a bedroom. I love that stuff, don't get me wrong, but there's a lot more room for atmosphere in the superior recording techniques, and I think the newer records are if anything even darker and more intense than the early stuff.
12. Tattle Tale - "Fly Away". This song was on a comp called "Julep", which was the second "Yo-yo a Go-go" compilation of bands recorded at Yo-yo studios in Olympia. I'm not sure if Tattle Tale ever released any albums of their own--their best-known song, "Glass Vase Cello Case", is on the soundtrack to "But I'm A Cheerleader". However, there are between 8 and 12 songs floating around on the internet in various places. Oops, I see from allmusic.com that they had an album called "Sew True". Either way, this song isn't on it. Tattle Tale was a duo consisting of cellist Madigan Shive and singer/guitarist Jen Wood. All of the songs that I've heard by them have the same sort of dark, quiet, emotional intensity as this one; like the early blues, but without any real musical links to it. They broke up a long time ago, and now Madigan plays in Bonfire Madigan, while Jen records solo under her own name. Neither of those projects come anywhere near the awesomeness of Tattle Tale, which is a shame.
13. Vic Chesnutt - "Dodge". From his album "Drunk." Vic Chesnutt is another of the more country-associated artists on this CD, but again, I think he's worth checking out anyway. He has an interesting backstory; he was paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident he had while driving drunk at the age of 18. It didn't get him to stop drinking, but it did inspire him to start playing really depressing solo acoustic music. The self-loathing lyrical attitude of this song is common in his work; I wouldn't know, but I'm sure this is great music to listen to while getting hella drunk because life sucks. For the record, this song came out in 1993. His newer shit tends to be more slickly produced, which I don't like, but you can't go wrong with his first few albums.
14. Sufjan Stevens - "Vito's Ordination Song (demo)". This version of this song is pretty much vocals and banjo, and while the album version never really stood out to me, I feel that this one is transcendent and incredible. I'm pretty sure that it was exclusively released to the internet, specifically iTunes, but don't quote me on that. I'm thinking you've heard this song in another form, as it seems to me that you told me you have the album it's from ("Greetings From Michigan"), but I still figured I'd put this on here just because of how much better I like it in this version.
15. CocoRosie - "Terrible Angels". This is from their first album, "La Maison de la Reve". I don't know too much about this group, although I have to say I find their combination of simple, bare-bones pop tunes with weird fucked up background noise quite interesting. Apparently all the critics hate their new record, and even though I haven't heard it it seems from the things I've read that it's generally for bullshit reasons. Who knows. I'd say it bears investigating.
16. Two Gallants - "Crow Jane". This is from their album "The Throes", but I've only heard it because a friend sent me the mp3 file. I have no idea what the rest of the album sounds like, but judging from this song I'd say that these guys are also riding the line between "really dark alt-country" and modern freak folk. Whatever it is, I'm digging it. [By the way, sorry I've got less to say about these later songs--there's less history to the more recent groups, nah mean?]
17. Danielson Famile - "Fetch The Compass Kids". From the album of the same name. The Danielson Famile are really fucking strange and change a lot from album to album. They're led by Daniel Smith, who writes the tunes, plays guitar, and sings in a really weird voice. They're nakedly religious, just like Sufjan Stevens and Sixteen Horsepower, but stuff like that never really bothered me. I like it, but I'm not quite sure what "it" is.
18. Diane Cluck - "Heat From Every Corner." This is my favorite song off Devendra Banhart's "The Golden Apples of the Sun" CD comp, and I know that it's also from her record "Macy's Day Bird". That's about all I know, except that this song has that strange looping feel that shows up in my favorite Animal Collective stuff, as well as stuff by Cromagnon (note: FUCK, I forgot to put both Cromagnon AND the Godz on this CD! FUCK FUCK FUCK! I will make you another one soon). Sometimes repetition is boring and lame, but from acoustic/folk artists it can be quite hypnotic, and this song is a prime example.
19. White Magic - "Don't Need". Also from "Golden Apples of the Sun", as well as being on their Drag City EP, apparently. Remember when I told you at the bar that this band had members you wouldn't at all expect to be in some weird acoustic psychedelic band? It's vocalist Mira Bilotte I was talking about, who was in Quix*o*tic with her sister Christina, of Slant 6 fame, and drummer Miggy Littleton, who played in Ida with her brother Dan, also of The Hated fame. Strange roots for a band now identified with Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart, but the music is still really good, if a bit more refined than I'd like it to be.
So there you go. I'll try to come up with another mix containing all the shit I wanted to put on this but forgot to in the next couple of weeks.
That's it for today's installment. Tomorrow I'll try to get to writing about why I'm very unhappy with the new Death Cab For Cutie album (even though I really liked all of their previous ones), or maybe I'll just talk about my weird mixed feelings about the two CDs I got in the mail today. If nothing else, hopefully I'll write SOMETHING.