Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Folk Music Among the Oak & Ash

The Paste Magazine Culture Club podcast turned me on to one of my favorite albums of summer 2008, and just as I was thinking I needed some new music for this summer, the July 2009 edition of Paste Culture Club showed up to save the day.

Among a bunch of bizarre stuff--bizarre stuff comes with the territory in that podcast--was the track "Peggy-O" from Among the Oak & Ash's self-titled album. They're a folk/"Americana" duet who play a lot of songs by that celebrated composer "Traditional". I've always had a soft spot for Appalachia-tinted folk-y music. (I don't even mind a little bluegrass, which is far from a popular opinion.) But the big obstacle in the way of me actually acquiring some is that it feels kind of weird listening to some fifty-year old dude from Tennessee plucking an indeterminate string instrument.

That's why Among the Oak & Ash is so intriguing: they play that sort of music, but they're indie enough to live comfortably in the rest of my iPod (and among the rest of the Paste Magazine fare). I mean, the girl singer is named Garrison, and the dude wears a vest while he's playing guitar.

Folk music thrives on harmonies, and Among the Oak & Ash delivers there. Garrison Starr and Josh Joplin have a very effective vocal arrangement that shows up in several of the songs on the album, where they sing the same melody and the same pitches (with Starr an octave or two higher, naturally). It's not harmonizing per se, but it's a nice effect that suggests simplicity and unity. The other vocal trick that works well is harmonizing in perfect fourths, but with Joplin singing the higher pitch, despite his lower vocal register.

The album makes the mistake that so many others do, front-loading it with the most interesting tracks. "Hiram Hubbard" is a brilliant way to start the album, and I don't think it would have worked anywhere but the start. The next three tracks, "Peggy-O", "Angel Gabriel", and "Shady Grove", are upbeat (or at least fast-paced), and they're my favorite three tracks on the album. "Angel Gabriel" is probably the highlight of the album, combining the band's vocal excellence with some nice religious imagery.

Unfortunately, the entire album isn't as exciting as the first four songs promise. "The Water Is Wide" and "High, Low, and Wide" are both about three times as long as they need to be, and honestly none of the songs where either Starr or Joplin sings alone is as effective as the ones where they sing together. "Joseph Hillstrom" is a catchy enough original composition, and I couldn't identify it as an original rather than a traditional simply by listening to it, which is a good sign.

As first, I didn't see a whole lot that would keep me coming back to Among the Oak & Ash, but I don't think that's true at all. The band's music represents an original take on music deeply rooted in the cultural, social, and spiritual traditions of this country. Or, a contemporary view of timeless themes. Starr and Joplin say that Among the Oak & Ash is a project that's just beginning, and I can only hope we see many more albums like this one in the coming years.

Currently listening: "A World Apart", Vedera

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