What the folk? 

Traditional music from some nonexistent country

Strapping Fieldhands
The Third Kingdom
(Omphalos Records)

Folk is tough. Damn straight it is! From the copper mines of Montana to the coal mines of West Virginia, folk was tough-as-nails troubadours singing against social injustice while acting as the outcasts. They sported in plenty of fisticuffs, bad attitudes, heavy drinking and other substance abuses. Slow crushing blows to the scene, in the guise of healthy record contracts, resulted in the new friendly folk of the ’70s. Protest became passé. The popular set didn’t have a damn thing to worry about, settled in their easy livin’. Take it easy, baby, if you can afford it. An agreement was understood between performer and public that folk music should be easy to relate to, as reality was too tough. So now we have Jewel.

What if we throw in weird stories or possible solutions or way-out concepts? Or innovation? Not by adding a sample or a funky beat; start with the innovation of musicians trading in their acoustic guitars for electric and producing some of the most tantalizing, mind-blowing music that set monumental standards for folk and rock alike. Fairport Convention, the Pentangle and the Incredible String Band were tuned into something more cosmic, something that stretched far beyond yet incorporated their traditional roots.

How is this form of music relevant these days? It’s practically nonexistent. There have been pockets of greatness with that particular influence over the past 30 years, but only in the late ’80s to the ’90s did a different kind of folk music begin stirring deep in the underground. Arizona’s Sun City Girls latched onto Middle Eastern and Asian instruments, mixing their own bizarre arrangements, language and gods with free-form jazz to make something weird enough for a possible exorcism or even a spiritual awakening. San Francisco must have experienced some form of time-warp porthole, as bands like Job’s Daughters, U.S. Saucer and the thoroughly enigmatic Caroliner Rainbow Wire Thin Sheep Legs Baking Exhibit sang songs from a century past. Some of them were true to nature, and some were as bent as an absinthe drinking spree—CRWTSLBE claimed to be channeling a singing bull from the 1800s named Caroliner. While some might say it’s just a racket (in any sense of the word), it’s a form of folk music to me.

My favorite in the now-what-the-hell-did-you-say-was-folk-about-this-again? lot is a five-piece from Philadelphia who call themselves the Strapping Fieldhands. These guys touch down anywhere from swab-the-deck sea shanties to early American gothic, songs Greg Brady could’ve whipped up for the Silver Platters, to just plain fried-out weird psychedelic rants and raves.

A brief release history: Guitarist Bob Malloy, bassist Bob Dickie and guitarist Jacy Webster began with a 1991 EP titled The Demiurge, released on the Siltbreeze label. More singles followed with the addition of percussionists Jeff Werner and Sky Kishlo. Strapping Fieldhands’ first full-length album, Discus, was released on their own Omphalos label in 1993. Two 10-inch EPs followed in ’94: The Caul, on The Now Sound label, and In The Pineys on Siltbreeze. 1996 saw the release of the Wattle and Daub LP on the Shangri-La label. The last bone thrown to fans was a CD compilation of all their singles released on Siltbreeze, titled Gobs On The Midway.

And then there was silence. Nary a Fieldhand release on any horizon. The seasons passed, the band name was barely a mutter in the underground—just one more low man on the Google search engine totem pole.

Then, in the beginning of ’02, radio station extraordinaire WFMU (based in New Jersey) had the Strapping Fieldhands play a live acoustic set on its “Black Opps” program. The light got bigger and brighter when it was mentioned that their newest effort, The Third Kingdom, was to be released later in the year on Ompahlos.

Six years of gestation and it’s a healthy batch of analog basement recordings, depicting tales better suited to Foxfire books, to those of just yesterday. Influences? Perhaps Fairport Convention, Incredible String Band, Donovan, Bevis Frond, Jandek, the Manson Family, Skiffle music, minstrel shows, singing pirates, scarlet fever, etc. The list goes on and gets much weirder. The Fieldhands have always had a psychedelic edge, a nice balance of electric and acoustic instruments (new member Robert Bell plays an eight-stringed Greek bouzouki).

So the folk tag might be a bit controversial even among band members, but it’s all in their songwriting style—a timeless approach to a lengthy timeline. The Third Kingdom is a backcountry storybook, creepy adventures and enduring portraits for settlers who practice Zen. The music is a full-on dive into the medicine bag of goodies: the drunken swagger of the opening tune “Heave Ho,” the affectionate “Eager Girl,” the growling folkloric warnings of “Lucid Lagoon.” “Copper Rings” is a total psych-twirl. The last tune, “Folk is Tough,” could have been an outtake from the musical Hair. The Fieldhand delivery is loose and bent, sounding closer to a kid’s camp music experiment than to some painfully professional and practically precise unit of yo-yos attempting to wring a tear out of your eye.

The mess is beautiful, all clanging things, thumping strange percussion (I swear I hear a tabla in the mix), wandering violas and violins, wah-wah guitars. Traditional music from some nonexistent country. That’s what I admire about the Strapping Fieldhands, they’ve tapped into something so transcendental that it’s like fellowship. Their music continues to be perfect and they personally once again reign as Thee Band of Bands throughout all of our territories. The Third Kingdom is the best damned thing to come through these speakers this year and most likely for the next few. A masterpiece.

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