Folk implosion 

What the world needs now is a better folk singer

Strange to say about me and folk music, but it’s gotten to the point where I dread hearing the stuff anymore even before I’ve cracked the jewelbox. Strange to say, since I’m now well into that phase of my music-listening life wherein I might reasonably be expected to follow the path trod by countless peers who no longer find the phrase “If it’s too loud, you’re too old” nearly the laugh riot we once did. That way limps tepid goo, sonically speaking, and a good number of contemporary adults quite understandably will swallow any old pre-digested folk pap—’scuse me, Americana—and thank you kindly for it as long as it just doesn’t sound too violent or aggressive or confusing or weird or loud. At a certain age, for a lot of people, non-acoustic musics start to sound raw like a nerve, like sleeping on the bare ground, sonically speaking. To hell with that, comes the eminently reasonable response: give me that double-wide ThermaRest. I’ll even maintain with a straight face that it’s precisely this cush factor, and not some nascent mass appetite for ethnic roots music, that accounts for the periodic mass successes of quality documents but unlikely chartbusters like The Gipsy Kings and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

Folk doesn’t have to get by on just its relative ease on the old ears, but contemporary folk artists too often try to compensate for the sonic softness demanded by their genre with an over-compensating emotional rawness. I’m talking baldly confessional lyrics here, which is just as artless and assaultive, to my ear, as something you’d pay to get away from.

There’s a reason Christopher Guest recently made a movie—A Mighty Wind—about the absurdities of the folk world: Like heavy metal twenty years ago, the genre’s ripe.

But let me get ahead of myself here and report that though I cringed as I opened it, I did not have the anticipated allergic reaction to Whitefish’s Frank O’Brien, Jr. once his 1999 disk Found started spinning. Pretty good stuff, and better a few listens in.

See, it’s not that I necessarily recoil at everything you might call folk. Townes Van Zandt’s recorded output, for instance, is as sonically gooey as it comes—don’t-know-what-else-to-do-with-him strings and the whole schmear. But the words of his best songs are so strikingly in tune with something so strikingly out there that a warehouse of harps couldn’t keep you from hearing him.

Greg Brown, for another example, has the lucky good fortune to sound more like a very old tree than your garden-variety tenor folkie, and he’s taken his writing lessons from William Blake and Tom Waits. Alejandro Escovedo has that edgy something in his corner, and Tom Catmull a bit of it locally.

So there are exceptions to the rule. It’s just that so much more of what falls within the generally accepted category is such simpering and/or derivative posturing that one finds it hard to muster the energy to try to differentiate even the basic points of which damn one’s which, or even the energy to care.

Given how many ways there are for contemporary folk to turn sour, the form is a bit like horse racing: the start is, if not everything, then certainly the better part of it. Frank O’Brien, Jr. gets off to a rocky start in his press release, which namechecks Van Zandt and Jim Croce in a list of contemporary influences—both must be spinning like turbines in their respective graves over such unaccustomed proximity—but he catches up fast with the disc’s first track, “Low Expectations.” It’s the fiddle and the hillbilly-bounce pace that draw you in. The fiddle says that O’Brien won’t be so baldly presumptuous as to expect to hold your attention with nothing but his well-utilized but ubiquitous tenor and his strumming and bongos and his coffeeshop revelations. He’s going to give you music too. The pace tells you you’re going to play a little first. More folkies could learn this lesson: You’ve got to ease listeners in before you smack them with your intimacy.

After that introduction, it matters much less that track two, “Mating Cry,” is exactly the sort of strum-and-bongo tenor lament from which the first song promised relief. Found goes back and forth from there: some strummers, some more bluegrassy stuff, and some words that on more than one occasion, in my opinion, rise to the level of being worth the price of admission. I won’t say where they are, in what songs, partly because Found is a four-year-old disk by now. Could be lost by now. But then again, much more could have been discovered in the meantime. If I liked this kind of music, I think I’d go find out.

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