There’s very little music today (or ever) that is completely sui generis, completely new. This is not a bad thing. Originality is hardly what counts in the pursuit of good music. And in our post-post-post-whatever culture, originality (and its geniusy, elitist overtones) has been out of style for a long time, replaced by a comfortably permissive, no-questions-asked eclecticism. You might say that eclecticism is, by definition, the absence of one particular style. This isn’t really true. The style is, precisely, to be eclectic in the right way, to have the right influences.
“Freak folk,” “New Weird America” — this kind of pop music typology is just one more insufferable symptom of our over-commodified, over-determined culture. Complicated names for what are in effect very simple — and perhaps less marketable — things. Long story short: For the past couple of years, the indie labels have been releasing classicist folk and psychedelic rock records all over again. It’s apparently been long enough for some of the more obscure music of the ’60s to have been rediscovered and repackaged as a cool new item by and for the Williamsburg set (and fellow travelers).
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As with almost anything, a few do it well and most do it poorly. Will Oldham (Bonnie “Prince” Billy), as critically lauded as he is, is nothing compared to the real folk and country greats. Forget authenticity, originality, politics, “rockism,” or any other critical bent — when it comes down to it, as Duke Ellington said, “If it sounds good, it is good.” And if not, not. Oldham just doesn’t write songs like the great songwriters he’s modeled on: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the Band, Nick Drake, etc. He has a fraction of the emotional depth, distinctiveness and nuance of these artists, and his affected primitivism is off-putting.
The elfish Joanna Newsom’s harp playing and squeaky kiddie-folk voice prove a more winning combination. She draws on folk singers of the past, but with a sparkling cleverness that is her own, and her whimsy is only occasionally cloying. Devendra Banhart plays bland, occasionally pleasant folk rock. Lesser-known musicians like Turner Cody and the WoWz play straight-ahead folk a la early Dylan convincingly enough.
Six Organs of Admittance, the fluctuating group of musicians formed in 1998 by singer/guitarist Ben Chasny, brings something interesting to the “freak folk” table. The influences are hard not to hear: The acoustic fingerpicking of John Fahey, the wailing electric solos of Neil Young, the psychedelic stylings of late-sixties groups like the 13th Floor Elevators. But the result proves to be, at best, quite seductive.
Six Organs’ latest record, “Shelter from the Ash,” though not quite as strong as 2005’s “School of the Flower” and 2006’s “The Sun Awakens,” is haunting and has some beautiful moments. The record is less about songs and more about ambience. It is a moody, dark wash of music. Chasny’s guitar is the focus of the sound, as it is on all his records. At its best, his ruminative, Middle Eastern-inflected fingerpicking, often hanging over one chord, rivals Fahey’s. But Chasny doesn’t breathe with his guitar the way Fahey always does, the phrases rising and falling, lilting, like breath. There is a flatness to his sound. His electric playing, though also occasionally brilliant, rarely reaches the gut-wrenching peaks of Young’s wailing guitar solos, on which they are modeled. (The Neil Young and Crazy Horse influence is even stronger in Chasny’s other band, Comets on Fire, a psychedelic-garage-noise-rock group.) The point is, this music is not nearly as good as its models.
Chasny’s solid but undistinctive voice is a combination of the gentler side of Lou Reed (think “Candy Says” or “Pale Blue Eyes”), the buoyancy of Nick Drake with, around the edges, a touch of the moroseness of Swans’ Michael Gira. His voice is nowhere near as low as Gira’s, but he comes to mind because the dark-hued, plodding, intense music on this album, coupled with hypnotic chanting, often sounds like Swans. Ah, the intersections of “freak folk” and “post-industrial noise rock.”