There is a great deal of new music at the moment which might loosely be termed 'folk' or 'traditional' music, much of it refashioned in fresh and interesting ways. I'm still enjoying the quaint charm of Alasdair Roberts' 'Farewell Sorrow' album twelve months after its release, whilst on the other side of the pond, acts such as The Be Good Tanyas seem to be drawing new inspiration from traditional American forms. Whether or not this music is successful is to some extent reliant on how authentic or convincing we find the performers. Can this old fashioned vernacular really be applied to their contemporary life experience?
I find it easy to overcome such misgivings when listening to the sublime new album from Jolie Holland. Holland has become something of a cult figure since the release of her ramshackle self-recorded debut 'Catalpa' late last year. She collaborated with the Be Good Tanyas on their early material, and has gone on to find a distinctive voice of her own. 'Escondida' is a seamless melding of traditional country and jazz phrasing, not a million miles away from Norah Jones, but without so much as a trace of coffee-table blandness. Holland's vocals are so evocative that it seems misleading to either pigeonhole her or make comparisons - but the closest to this wonderful music I can think of is the equally talented Erin McKeown. 'Escondida' is as intoxicating and addictive as the 'Old Fashioned Morphine' that Holland sings about. It is rustic and familiar, yet simultaneously mysterious. 'Black Stars' is elusive, with many twists and turns in its melody, whilst the piano-led 'Amen' is simple, elegant and touching. Holland fares just as well on re-interpretations of traditional songs. 'Old Fashioned Morphine' is a hybrid of 'Old Time Religion' and Blind Willie Johnson's version of 'Wade In The Water', and is infused with a convincing blues spirit. When the brass tumbles in, there's an unmistakeably Tom Waitsian feel to the track. It therefore comes as no surprise that the man himself is a fan. 'Mad Tom Of Bedlam' is brilliantly inspired, stripped down to just Holland's laconic phrasing and some nimble brush drumming. At its best 'Escondida' is an imaginative refashioning of traditional forms, and a signifier of a dynamic songwriting talent.
I feel a little guilty for saying this, but I'm much less convinced by Devendra Banhart. His life story supposedly starts in Texas, but after his parents' divorced, he followed his mother to the slums of Venezuela. He was discovered at the age of 20 by Swans mainman Michael Gira, unwashed and homeless, who immediately signed him to his Young God record label. Gira thinks that Banhart is 'the real deal', and that his music is honest, sincere and completely devoid of any postmodern irony. It is a shame therefore, that his music is not completely devoid of pretension. Banhart is undoubtedly talented - his finger-picked guitar playing is frequently remarkable, with a resonant sound strongly resembling the guitar that formed the spine of Nick Drake's best records, or the naturalistic guitar sounds of early Bob Dylan. He also has an unusual and striking singing style, with hints of vulnerability and introversion. Yet his melodies too often meander, and both the titles and the lyrics are characterised by a tendency towards meaningless verbosity. When he is at his most concise, the wordplay can be touching, occasionally even humorous, but there is always the lingering sense that we are being admonished by someone who spends more time cultivating a neo-psychedelic mystical folk image than on actually forming an emotional connection with their audience. There's something slightly studied and academic about Banhart the wandering hippy nomad, named after an Indian preacher, an utterly mesmerising performer, the real deal. I wonder if this image might be stripped away, and there would be a more honest, compelling and original performer left behind. I will give the album a few more listens. In isolation, some of the tracks are striking in their stark simplicity - particularly the opening 'This Is The Way', 'This Beard Is For Siobhan' and the gently rolling 'Poughkeepsie'.
With the case of Joanna Newsom, the links with the folk genre are slightly more tenuous. Whilst she shares a stark, uncompromising style with Banhart, her harsh, childlike vocal and her choice of instrumentation (mainly harp and harpsichord), place her very much in a category of one. 'The Milk-Eyed Mender' is one of the most unusual albums I've heard so far this year - distinctive in both its approach to composition and execution. I must confess to finding Newsom's voice a bit of an obstacle - but then I thought that about Kate Bush when I was younger, and I'm now besotted with 'The Kick Inside' and 'The Hounds of Love'. Newsom is immediately striking vocally - an extreme, high-pitched squawk that also manages to be tender and touching at the same time. There's a chance that this album, with its whimsy and quirkiness, may well be a slow-burning indie gem. Newsom is signed to the wonderful Drag City label (American home to Bonnie Prince Billy, Smog, Royal Trux, Weird War and many others), and has already received the patronage of Will Oldham. I therefore feel almost obliged to like this record, so I'm persevering as much as possible. In places, it is effectively simple and touching (particularly 'Bridges and Balloons', 'The Book of Right-On' and 'Sadie') but it's also undeniably a challenge to listen to the album from start to finish.
Her lyrical approach is a little hit-and-miss, occasionally sounding forced or pretentious ('Oh, where is your inflammatory writ?/Your text that would incite a light, "Be lit"). More often than not, however, she finds a natural and insightful voice. Album opener 'Bridges and Balloons' begins with the marvellous lines 'We sailed away on a winter's day/with feet as malleable as clay/but ships are fallible I say/and the nautical, like all things fades', surely as evocative an opening verse as we can expect to hear all year. So few lyricists manage to conjure such wistful feeling whilst constructing such intelligent wordplay and inventive internal rhyme schemes.
There is much to admire here - and if I've implied that the album as a whole might be irritating, it's nowhere near as infuriating as 'Crickets Sing for Anamaria' by Emma Bunton. That attempt at Latin-chart crossover is possibly the most inauthentic record I've heard all year. But that's another story entirely....