Writing on Roots

Attempting a mission statement

Take a moment to think, breath and read about folk music. What exactly is folk music? What do we talk about when we talk about roots? Tori Sparks – singer, writer, full-time artist – will take us on a journey through modern Americana. Stay tuned.

My job is to write about folk, roots, blues, Americana, alt-country – those being my theoretical areas of expertise, after having released a bunch of records myself of the same genre(s). Claiming an area of musical expertise is a risky business. It’s the same idea as claiming to be a great cook. Once the words escape your lips, you’d better be able to concoct a pretty impressive soufflé, no?

Born in Chicago, and having lived in Nashville (a.k.a. “Music City”) for my whole adult life, I’ve having had the privilege to see, meet, and/or work with some of the most incredible musicians on the planet who play, basically, acoustic music.

My mom knows nothing about music as a “professional” and she still has a damn good ear for a tune. But the difference is that my experience earning my living as a musician has given me a vocabulary that allows me to talk shop, create controversy, and shine the spotlight on worthy artists who make acoustic-based music. So, whether you’re a roots music aficionado or are just making a pit stop on your journey through the genres, strap yourselves in, and away we go…

Wikipedia says: Roots music is a broad category of music including bluegrass, country music, gospel, old time music, jug bands, Appalachian folk, blues, Cajun and Native American music. The music is considered American either because it is native to the United States or because it developed there, out of foreign origins, to such a degree that it struck musicologists as something distinctly new. It is considered ‘roots music’ because it served as the basis of music later developed in the United States, including rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and jazz.”

Louis Armstrong said: “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.” In other words, folk music is music made by folks.

"The Voice of the artist is paramount. The lyrics, the message, the tone, are supposed to be personal, and often imperfect. The theme are those universal mind-benders that none of us can seem to figure out: love, loss, God, politics..."

I like that. So why this obsession with gentrification? As long as you have an ear attached to each side of your head, you can typically discern for yourself: 1) Is it music? 2) Do I want to keep listening to this? 3) Does it matter if it’s Metallica or Mozart? However, because the music biz grew out of a model that revolves around radio, the people usually want to know “what kind of music is it?” Unfortunately, the response “good music” doesn’t always count, and too often, non-Top-40 type-stuff gets overlooked in favour of the latest Black Eye Peas “My Humps” type single. In other words, in order to give so-called “less commercial” genres an outlet, we - the small but mighty army of defenders of alternative musical styles - are here to represent what we call real music. Music that makes us feel something, be it BB King or the Beastie Boys. And in the case of this column, we want to concentrate on acoustic-based music, call it what you will.

I prefer to throw my lot in with Louis Armstrong over Wikipedia and say that there are no rules, per se, but here’s the basic idea à la Tori. Roots music: there’s typically a guitar or a piano in there somewhere. The artist or band usually composes his or her or their own stuff . . . or covers really old stuff (which then technically becomes a “standard”, not a cover, I guess). Think a million versions of “Summertime”. The Voice of the artist is paramount. The lyrics, the message, the tone, are supposed to be personal, and often imperfect. The theme are those universal mind-benders that none of us can seem to figure out: love, loss, God, politics . . . so If you feel like a bit of a voyeur, well, good. The band seems to be doing its job.

The New Folkness: We’re Not Just Talking Dylan Anymore

Now, when I say “acoustic” or “folk” music, what do you think of? A hundred years ago, the answer would have been an English country dance, a traditional Korean sanjo or a Spanish jota. A few decades ago, the obvious answer would have been Dylan, Joan Baez, Woodie Guthrie. Ten or fifteen years ago, 90’s feminist pop-folk à la Jewel, or perhaps the Indigo Girls would probably come to mind. You’ve heard and probably read about all of those artists and more.

"A mix of roots, rock, indie, country, world-weariness and tech-savvy. Welcome the new folkness."

Fast-forward second decade of the 2000’s: enter what I call the new folk bands. Think your 4-to-5-man garage band, but maybe rehearsing in a barn instead. They retain the back-to-basics aesthetic that has defined roots or folk groups in the past, but their music and attitude are informed by the past sixty years of vast musical and social change.

Their attitude is not too far removed from the garage/grunge/indie-punk ethic from the generation or so before – which was not too far removed from ball-and-icon-busting tendencies of the original folkies. Woodie Guthrie was an outspoken activist, the popular strummers of his and the next generation decried Vietnam - but the sound of the new folk bands, having been influenced by the music of the ensuing four decades, is totally different. Maybe the political statements are more sarcastic and subtle, maybe the ingenuousness of the 60s and the righteous anger of the 70s have worn off, but the fundamental “we make real music about things we know” attitude is the same. Granted, this new folk as a genre or sub-genre would definitely piss off the same cranky people who actually occasionally still complain about “when Dylan plugged in and ruined everything” – oh yes, they’re out there, kids – but this is a sound that is and has been on the rise. A mix of roots, rock, indie, country, world-weariness and tech-savvy. Welcome the new folkness.

For fans of... ? Oh, I hate comparing artists to other artists. It’s like the idea of comparing your ex-lovers. It’s possible, obviously, but it just feels kind of inappropriate.

That being said, we all want a frame of reference for our aural experiences. Some of the bands I’m talking about are the following: The Low Anthem, Great Lake Swimmers, Gregory Alan Isakov, Melissa McClelland, Iron & Wine, Anna Calvi and others. They are a product of the same generation as certain intelligent, lyric-conscious rock bands such as Muse, Arcade Fire, or The Shins... but where the former followed the path of the electric guitar, these guys all took a left turn at the fork in the dirt road in favour of accordions, acoustic guitars, lap steels and tambourines. Add in a little theremin or other suitably weird instrument (Tom Waitsian frying pan percussion and the like), and there you have it. They might sport the occasional beard and wear thrift-store corduroy suits as opposed to black-on-black designer threads, but the cynical, intellectual personal and social commentary comes from a similar place.

The new folk folk are the less-showy, earthier side of a generation of artists striving to create something that strikes an emotional chord in an emotionally desensitized digital world. More and more groups with these certain elements in common are cropping up in the US and in Europe, and the public are responding.

This Is What I’m Talking About: Album Review Of “Dark So Gold” By The Pines

I was very excited to stumble across a record that fit so nicely into the article I was planning to write.

It’s (arguably) impossible to make a record that sounds unlike anything else out there. But in my opinion it’s almost as difficult to make a record that fits perfectly within a genre, but still manages to have a Voice – to sound like itself, and only itself. Once you’ve heard The Pines, you won’t confuse them with any other band out there.

I didn’t know anything about the Minneapolis-based septet when I started listening to their third album, “Dark So Gold”, but the music speaks for itself. Acoustic guitar and piano, moody drums, atmospheric synths mixed with ambient sounds and rain sticks create an aural landscape that made me want to listen to every track on the record. The songs are well-played and interestingly arranged, as well as superbly recorded. I don’t know why, but some seem to think that the labels Americana, roots, blues, or folk can be used as excuses for poor performances or laziness in production. Not these guys.

The album starts out with one of my favourite tracks, “Cry Cry Crow,” which recalls the rhythm of a chain gang as it plods through a tale of lost love. (I didn’t know it was possible to “plod” in a good way, but, turns out it is.) Just when you think every track will sound like epically solemn farmland darkness, the band busts out a little attitude. For example, the song “Chimes” begins: “If you don’t believe I’m leaving, you can follow me to the train.” It was nice to hear that they don’t shy away from a bit of a groove, either, as in the country-flavoured tune “Rise Up and Be Lonely.”

"For me, good music of any genre is music that gives me ideas for music myself, and this album did."

These arrangements are all with an ear towards subtlety, in that the longer you listen, the more cool quirks you hear . . . and with lyrics that leave undeniable images burned into your brain: “my heart upon the table”, “the hourglass you’re holding is filled with falling snow.” They reference pilgrims, sailors, old-world and end-of-the-world imagery, but also sing about satellites and corporate America. The blend of the modern with the timeless, the young voices ragged with what sounds like real life experience is appealing, and refreshing. The heaviness, the intensity, the melancholy doesn’t strike a single false note. The thought that came to mind was, “ok, these guys get it”. Even the blending of multiple lead singers’ voices never distracts from the cohesion of the whole. The tendency towards broken hearts and political commentary isn’t far from the themes of folkies of yesteryear, but because the sound is fresh and the take on both is far less cutesy than what you might have heard on a record from the 60s, the laments don’t sound timeworn or clichéd.

The songs are composed of great rhymes without being pretentious. Just when the pictoralism could start to overwhelm the story, the logic of the lyrics are saved by simple, plain lines: “I’m not asking for much, just your bittersweet touch”, or “I thought I was in love once but I don’t know / I was over dressed and scared to be alone.” Like an arrow straight to the heart. This balance between imagery and simple emotion reminds me a little of the writing style of Todd Snider, Dave Olney or even Tom Waits.

I ultimately ended up listening to the whole record because I wanted to, not because I was supposed to in order to review it. For me, good music of any genre is music that gives me ideas for music myself, and this album did.

Now, before you start wondering, there was initially something in the record that did bug me. “Moonrise, Iowa” initially seemed like a nothing more than a throwaway track. It’s a short acoustic slice of a song, no lyrics. A bit of undistinguished guitar picking, relaxing but not that interesting. Then I read the title. I’ve seen the moon rise in Iowa, and the tranquil, understated piece of music is aptly named. Ok, ok, we’ll let that one slide... one get-out-of-jail-free card used.

The Pines - Dead Feathers

But a few songs later, these cheeky kids had cajones to do it again! The track “Grace Hill” is similar in that it’s a short acoustic tune that almost would seem like filler, except that as this is the second time the band tries this trick – which served to at least to spark my curiosity. I thought, “Again? Ok, there has to be a point here. I’ll wait to see what it is.”

The third little acoustic track “Losing the Stars” closes the record. At this point, I’ve listened to the whole project, and the rhythm between the full songs and the short instrumental interludes seems to work. These brief bits form a part of the landscape the band has intentionally and successfully created. That the tracks worked together to form a whole larger than the sum of its parts was impressive, especially in the days of the records-are-dead-make-singles mentality. The final result of listening to “Dark So Gold” from start to finish is that I felt as though I were in the passenger seat on a road trip across the American Midwest.

As I mentioned before, I had no idea who these guys were, in spite of having hung around some of the same music conferences and venues at one time or another. After I listened to the record, I checked out the bio on their website, and was impressed by not only the dedication of the band to their project, but by the good taste Red House Records had in signing them a couple of years ago. Just goes to show that there is still room in the music industry for bands that prefer not to wear tube tops.

The band’s quiet approach may not resonate if you’re not really paying attention, but there’s a lot there if you are willing to listen. Apparently, someone is listening, as they’ve been opening for Bon Iver, Mavis Staples, Arcade Fire, Iris DeMent and Mason Jennings, among others. Their website says that they will be on tour throughout 2012, so, I’m hoping to catch a show if I can.

In Conclusion…

I hope that you’ve been exposed to new sounds and perhaps new thoughts regardless of whether your tastes usually run towards Dr. Dog or Dr. Dre. When was the last time you picked up that guitar, by the way . . . ?

See you on the road.

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