Shooting From The Hip: New Roots Revival Underground

—by , October 7, 2008

Many talented artists have expanded upon the deep heritage of American folk music since its inception. Countless Blues-defined artists from Blind Lemon Jefferson to Leadbelly and Mississippi John Hurt to RL Burnside and various Country-related troubadours from Woody Guthrie to Hank Williams to Gram Parsons to Uncle Tupelo got entangled in folk’s web of personal and political liberation. Every once in awhile, a few more diligent artists come ‘round and add a slightly new flavor to its expansive oeuvre. Here are four humble successors who got semi-popular in 2008.

Perhaps the best known of the new ‘alt-country’ artists currently making the rounds, Fleet Foxes are akin to a modern day Crosby Stills & Nash. On their self-titled long-play Sub Pop debut, the folk-rooted Seattle based quintet, led by singer-acoustic guitarist Robin Pecknold and fellow 6-string childhood pal, Skye Skjelset, provide just the right mixture of bucolic rural ecstasy to deter the decadent urban melancholia pushing through the surface. Admittedly, Pecknold’s mournful reverberated tenor soars to wailing heights already reached by Jim James, whose similarly sentimental lamentations guiding My Morning Jacket make him a present-day roots-bestowed kingpin. But unlike James, he blends unsullied Beach Boys harmonies into becalmed ballads, provincial canticles, and rejuvenating hymnals, wallowing into the night on resonantly bellowed neo-Classical dirge “He Doesn’t Know Why” and hauntingly majestic requiem “Heard Them Stirring,” both sung as clear-toned and innocently as a cathedral-bound alter boy. On enchanting baroque bewitchment, “Your Protector,” Pecknold’s longing nasal twang conveys undeniable sensitivity with utmost conviction. A wandering grief-stricken loner beset with existential anguish yet dabbling in pretty acoustical fare, his elegiac sonority seduces each beautifully compelling piece. If Kansas’ maudlin “Dust In The Wind” wasn’t such overly sentimental drivel, it’d summon Fleet Foxes heavenly puritanical rusticity.

Taking their gloomy moniker from a reticent traditional spiritual hymn, O’Death came to fruition in 2003 at pastoral Westchester educational institute, SUNY-Purchase. Fronted by singer-guitarist Greg Jamie, they scrupulously merge old timey Appalachian-based folk with the trendy Eastern European-trashed Vaudevillian gypsy punk affecting radical allied bohemians Gogol Bordello and Devotchka. On O’Death’s praiseworthy third album, Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin (Kemado), the “giddy junkyard hoedowns” hit an efficiently maintained comfort zone, relying on corn-poked Country leanings to level off the whimsical Slavic bravado. Tempered banjo and icy crosscut fiddle interlace contemplative acoustic numbers with mystical lucidity. “Mountain Shifts” plays off an oom-pah beat, abruptly changing tempo as the chilly fiddle flurries give way to wrangling outlaw Blues. Despite gettin’ together in the clamorous ‘sub-urban’ Northeast, O’Death effortlessly uphold the New South’s untarnished homespun backwoods spirit, taking in some bluegrass along the trail.

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