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Blowin’ in the Wind: A Folk-Music Revolt

On the frontier of every art form guerilla bands of prophets and crackpots are nourishing the orthodoxies and fashions of tomorrow.

A decade ago the frontier outlaws were men like Miles Davis, Paul Goodman, and Norman Mailer. Bereft of followers, holed up in private Sierra Maestras, they scrounged for economic survival. Today every branch of culture has its own tribe of far-out revolutionaries, pushing imagination to new limits of possibility. There are William Burroughs, Jack Gelber, Lenny Bruce, LeRoi Jones, John Coltrane, and Jonas Mekas. And they are no longer struggling merely for survival: they represent the organized revolt of one generation against the limitations of the preceding one.

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Folk music is one of the battlegrounds where the hegemony of the established canons and values is being challenged by a creative cadre of insurgents, all city intellectuals and almost all in their early or mid 20s, who write and sing topical songs characterized by radicalism, wit, immediacy, and poetry.

Their leader up to until now has been the mumbling, ragamuffin genius Bob Dylan, as much the symbol of this generation as James Dean was of his. Dean was a rebel without a cause, but Dylan has been the rebel of a dozen causes.

Then there’s Buffy Sainte-Marie, who writes of her fellow Indians and their brutalization; or Phil Ochs, one of whose songs was inspired by a Louis Aragon poem; Gil Turner, the ideologue of the topical movement; Tom Paxton, who wrote his most famous song between sets in that cavernous crucible, the Gaslight; Len Chandler, who has a M.A. from Columbia but who is broke because, instead of staying in the coffee house circuit, he spent last summer working free for SNCC; Billy Edd Wheeler, chronicler in song of the stricken coal country; and at least a dozen more who carry the seed of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.

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The songs they write are not just traditional protests against war, poverty, and injustice, though even on those themes they are less mawkish and more corrosive than many of the songs of the ’30’s. Some of the songs are intensely personal statements like Buffy Sainte-Marie’s hypnotic warning against codeine addiction. Others glow with sardonic wit like Paxton’s “Daily News.” Others muse on the meaning of tragedy like Och’s “The Thresher” or Dylan’s “Who Killed Davey Moore?” Still others take a try at levels of meaning and Brechtian overtone, like Chandler’s “Roll, Turn, Spin.” Others come out of the jails and churches of the South, given shape by both white and Negro song writers, like “Ain’t Gonna Let Segregation Turn Us Around” and “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus.” And finally, there are songs like Dylan’s “Hard Rain,” a surrealist, post-Bomb view of the world, with such images as “a black branch with blood that kept dripping,” and “I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken.”

Most afficionados mark the birth of the topical song movement with the publication in February, 1962 in New York of the magazine Broadside (though the seeds of the movement go far back into the ’50s), put together by Pete Seeger, the selfless patron of the movement, Sis Cunningham, its chronicler, and Gil Turner, its talent scout. The first issue contained five songs, including “Talking John Birch Blues” by a 20-year-old named Bob Dylan. Fifty-five issues and 500 songs later, Broadside is the mimeographed bible of the topical song apostles and their disciples, stretching from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters.

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And after those three years the new-wave song writers are on the verge of dominating folk music. While threadbare tunes like “If I Had a Hammer” or “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” are now the property of the most commercial folk-singers and the most imaginative rock ‘n’ rollers, the repertoire of the most popular folk-singers — Seeger, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, or Peter, Paul, and Mary — is based on topical songs that a decade ago would have been blacklisted by every record company and radio station in the land. Even nightclub performers like Lena Horne and Bobby Darin have begun to incorporate topical songs into their acts.

In spite or their growing popu­larity and influence, though, the topical writers haven’t escaped some criticism along the line. Much of it comes from within their ranks, from established folk-singers who feel that all of them write too fast and lack the willingness to polish their songs. Here and there around the folk circuit there are also occasional mumblings that some topical writers are opportunist‚ that they only hopped on the political song bandwagon because they saw it was heading for success. Whatever private opinion might be, though, the songwriters are getting unprecedented attention. Says New York Times folk critic Robert Shelton, “There have always been periods of stepped-up activity in topical song writing during periods of American crisis. In this case it’s so pronounced you can’t really understand what college-age Americans are thinking today without paying a good deal of attention to it. It’s the cultural-philosophical expression from a whole new generation — an expression that should be studied and respected alongside the writings in literary quarterlies or beside slogans on picket signs.”

Next to Bob Dylan, whose work more and more is turning toward the mystical and symbolist, the most gifted of these writers — or certainly the most prolific — seems to be 23-year-old Phil Ochs, who fled journalism school at Ohio State in 1961 when he realized few papers would print his views undiluted.

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Today Ochs’ “agnostic Marxism,” sweetened by simple, often lyric melodies, is reaching more people than all the bloodless prose of all his classmates who stayed to master the inverted pyramid, a skill designed to dry up all creative juices.

Ochs is now in the position of a ballplayer who hit .285 his rookie year, or a dramatist who has written an impressive one-act play: everyone is predicting he is on he verge of a major breakthrough, that his meager $3000 earnings of 1963 will be 10 times that in 1965.

Lunch with a mutual friend and an hour interview illuminated only Ochs’ most obvious characteristics: his clear headed-ness, his candor, his wit, his left-wing politics. His pilgrimage to his current plateau parallels that of most of his contemporaries: at first, a wall of rejection from the established folk-singers upon his arrival in the Village in the autumn of 1961; then meeting Dylan and Turner and the coalescing of a faction around Broadside; “passing the basket” in the Third Side Cafe for six months; the first put-downs by major record companies; dates at the Gaslight Cafe and concerts; finally, cutting an album for Elektra Records and now editing the tapes for his second one to be released in February — “a militant, no bull shit record.”

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“I’m not a conventional folk-singer,” says Ochs when asked to define his talent. “I just use folk music to comment on the issues. My stuff is more an editorial than a song. I learned to play the guitar after I wrote a few songs.

“What we’re trying to do,” he explained, “is to give life to something that has been static for 20 years. We have had to overcome the bad reputation of those silly pop ditties of the ’50s. The major record companies are afraid of our material because it is so strong. They can’t believe a topical song can have any pertinence two weeks after it’s written.”

Then Ochs, the old journalism student, smiled and said: “Yes, pertinence, that’s the key word about us — put it in the article.”

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As the topical song writers grew from a fraction to a move­ment, their fans, many of them teenagers, began to invest them with a halo of heroism that bothers Ochs.

“There’s nothing noble about what I’m doing. I’m writing to make money. I write about Cuba and Mississippi out of an inner need for expression, not to change the world. The roots of my songs are psychological, not political.”

But because of his material, his life style, his friends, and his politics, Ochs has become an integral part of the Village Left, appearing at its parties, rallies, and in its magazines. Neverthe­less, he sees his political role as unromantically as he sees every­thing else, and subservient to his song writing.

One of the 130 songs he has written is called “A Knock on the Door,” a comment on the universality of totalitarianism. One of the verses recalls the Stalinist knock on the door.

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“Sure, some of my friends got upset at that verse and at a lot of others I’ve written. But they got over it. I know the dangers of letting politics dominate art, and I keep the two apart as much as I can … For example, I’m always getting asked to sing at this rally or that rally. I know I’m being used in the most callous way. But most of the time I go anyway, partly because it is good for my career, and partly because I see part of my job as a fund-raiser for SNCC.

”Another example is the new­est song I wrote, last week, about Mississippi letting those 19 men go free. It’s a hate song. It says Mississippi should get the hell out or the union. My friends in the Movement say I shouldn’t write a song like that but it rep­resents the hate I feel for Mississippi so I am going to add it to my new record, even though the tapes are already edited.”

Ochs’ rational view even ex­tends to his own talent. “I can tell I’m just beginning to write decent stuff,” he says. “I can feel the images and symbols coming more easily. And as I reach new levels, I can begin to fathom what Dylan’s songs are all about. What he does naturally, I still have to work at. But I’m getting there. I’m beginning to read poets like Brecht.”

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I asked him if he had read the Popularist poet Vachel Lindsay. He replied he had not, but asked me to write his name down and promised to buy some of his verse.

It is perhaps Ochs’ honesty and maverick spirit that are his biggest assets. The sense of outrage that fuels his pen is unencumbered by dogma. He knows how a party line can poison the wellsprings of creativity. So he goes on writing about the labor movement’s stains of racism, America’s folly in Vietnam, and songs like “The Ballad of Medgar Evers” and “I Ain’t Marching Any More,” the title of his new album. But he can also write a love song to America called “The Power and the Glory,” that con­cludes:

”Here is a land full of power and glory/ Beauty that words cannot recall/ Oh, her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom/ Her glory shall rest on us all/

“Yet she’s only as rich as the poorest of the poor/ Only as free as a padlocked prison door/ Only as strong as our love for this land/ Only as tall as we stand.” ■

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

The Raw Power of Bob Dylan’s Pain

Few figures have been as indelibly linked to the Village Voice as Bob Dylan, who we first covered as a fledgling folk prodigy haunting the Village’s coffeehouse scene, and whose portrait graced the final print edition of the paper. Always an enigmatic figure, by 1975 Dylan was harder to pin down than ever. A decade earlier, in the September 2, 1965, issue of the Voice, Jack Newfield reviewed Dylan’s legendary performance at Forest Hills, calling the then-24-year-old singer “America’s most influential poet since Allen Ginsberg.” But by the time Dylan released Blood on the Tracks in 1975, fans could be forgiven for wondering if he’d ever return to the heights of his mid-Sixties output.

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Following 1966’s epochal double album Blonde on Blonde, and a mysterious motorcycle crash in Woodstock a month later, Dylan had become something of a recluse, retreating from his perch as Voice of a Generation to pursue a quieter life as a family man. But as Lucian Truscott IV described in a 2016 essay for the Voice, by 1974, as he assembled the material that would make up Blood on the Tracks, Dylan’s marriage was in tatters.

In the February 3, 1975, issue of the Voice, longtime contributor Paul Cowan reviewed the collection, which, he writes, “has more raw power than any of his albums since ‘Blonde on Blonde.’ ” This month, the Dylan camp is releasing the fourteenth installment of his Bootleg Series, More Blood, More Tracks, which offers fans a deep dive into what Cowan called “the excruciating cry of a man who is tormented by his own freedom.”

Bob Dylan’s Pain: Flip Side to Cruelty
By Paul Cowan, February 3, 1975

Bob Dylan has regained his courage. “Blood on the Tracks” has more ray power than any of his albums since “Blonde on Blonde.” It fuses the musical control he began to gain in “John Wesley Harding” and “Nashville Skyline” with lyrics that are so honest you begin to share his torment as soon as you hear them. In songs like “Shelter from the Storm” and “Tangled up in Blue” he is once again exploring his private rage and pain, rather than posting as the contented country squire of “New Morning.” Even his decision to recut the record with unknown Minnesota studio musicians, to rely on the evocative power of his lonely voice, his harmonica and guitar, make you feel, in your pores, that this album comes from his craving to create, not from a willed decision his career required a new album.

The message that comes through the blues, the ballads, the light, lithe country tunes, is a bleak one. At 34, with his marriage on the rocks, he is an isolate, lonely drifter once again.”I’m going out of my mind, with a pain that stops and starts like a corkscrew in my heart.”

He’s still Woody Guthrie’s disciple, but his echoes of Woody’s songs evoke a deliberately desolate counterpoint to his mentor’s exuberant America (and his own past hopes). Woody saw the Grand Coulee Dam as an example of this country’s marvelous capacity to make “green pastures of plenty from the dry desert grounds.” But for Dylan, the dam is no longer an example of benevolent engineering. It is an arid, ominous symbol. “Idiot wind, blowin’ like a circle round skull, from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capital.” The language and phrasing are Woody’s, but the spent pessimism of the lyric and the tone of voice sounds more like T.S. Eliot. Dylan, trapped in the prison of himself, is Tiresias in his dugs. America is his wasteland. The answer, my friend, is no longer blowing in the wind. Now the idiot wind is blowin’ in a circle round his skull.

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In “Blood on the Tracks,” as in all Dylan’s great albums, pain is the flip side of his legendary cruelty. I remember my own anger at him when I first heard his masterpiece of scorn, “Ballad of a Thin Man.” It was released in 1965, when Dylan was still marginally political, when people who would become part of the new left were still trying to decide whether to reach out to America or withdraw from it. That insinuating, derisive refrain — “something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones” — promised to become an anthem for a spoiled generation. Dylan had permitted them to view all the America that lay beyond their tight knots of long-haired dopers as a land of Mr. Joneses, a frieze of naive, contemptible grotesques.

The irony is that his cruelty grew out of his own shyness, which seemed to intensify as he moved from anonymity in Hibbing to celebrity in New York. Before his motorcycle accident, everything he observed was material for a fresh tidal wave of the terrifying images that fill “Desolation Row” and “Memphis Blues Again.” There was always a defensive pained distance between himself and what he saw, a quickness to judge new people and experiences without ever relaxing enough to enjoy them.

Judging from “Blood on the Tracks,” the years he celebrated in “Nashville Skyline” and “New Morning” were somewhat stultifying, a soap bubble of time filled with contrived joy. Now the bubble has burst open. Sometime — probably as his marriage began to shatter — his selfishness must have curdled into self-hatred. You can hear that in the unexpected ending of “Idiot Wind.” The song begins with a put-down that sounds as cruel as “Ballad of a Thin Man” (“you’re an idiot, babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe”), but suddenly it closes with a forlorn paean to his woman’s “holiness” and “kind of love” and then with the terrible confession that, for the moment, he’s a sort of spiritual paraplegic: “We are idiots, babe. It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”

Even if part of you dislikes the singer, you have to feel unreserved admiration for the unsparing honesty of his songs.

But he can never connect. He’s still too eager to be the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or the handsome, mysterious Jack of Hearts (the hero of a nine-minute ballad on “Blood on the Tracks”) to permit any anchors in his life. Think of his songs about his five children. He writes about them once in a awhile — in “Sign in the Window,” for example, where he or a patriarchal persona says he wants “a bunch of kids who’ll call me Pa,” or in “Forever Young” (as mawkish and touching as “My Boy Bill” in Carousel), where he’s conventionally ambitious dad exhorting his young to embody a conventional array of virtues.

But the kids are always objects. He never experiences them as Robbie Robertson, say, experienced his daughter in “A La Glory” — or (to put Dylan in the class where he belongs) as Yeats experienced the prospect of fatherhood in his lovely meditation “Prayer for my Daughter.” And, incredibly, he never sings for his children. All the new songs he’s released since the birth of his first son are filled with intimate details of his love life and his search for God. But there is not a single nonsense playsong like Woody Guthrie’s “Mama, Oh Mama, Come Smell Me Now.” There is not a single lullabye.

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I think that Dylan bears a very special kind of curse. He seems unable to establish warm, lasting relationships, but he’s too eager for love to make the cold decision to sacrifice his private life to his art, as Joyce or even Mailer can. “Blood on the Tracks” is a great album because he’s writing into the headwinds of that curse, because songs like “Shelter from the Storm” and “Idiot Wind” are so plainly part of his relentless effort to find salvation.

The entire record is the excruciating cry of a man who is tormented by his own freedom. But it is also filled with religious imagery, with hints that the wounded, weary Dylan sees “Shelter from the Storm” not as a woman’s warm home, but as the peace of God. I think that, like T.S. Eliot, Dylan longs to submit his unruly will to the ceremonies of faith — maybe Orthodox Judaism, maybe formal Christianity. Or maybe — hopefully — some American fusion of those European forms.

For him, perhaps, the faith he is seeking is the only escape from his swirling emotions, the only alternative to madness or suicide.

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“40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie” Reunites an Obscure Colorado Jam Band

If you were the co-creator of Two and a Half Men and an exec of The Big Bang Theory, you could look at your bank statement and maybe buy a yacht or two. Or you could do what Lee Aronsohn has done and make one of the warmer, friendlier vanity projects I’ve ever seen. From a certain perspective, 40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie is a commentary on how far money can go to recapture the spirit of one’s youth. Aronsohn (who is present as narrator) attended the University of Colorado–Boulder in the 1970s. The biggest band on the scene was Magic Music, a Crosby, Stills and Nash–esque acoustic folk harmony group. They were good! But for whatever reason, they never even put out an album. After six years, the guys went their separate ways, but Aronsohn (and other Colorado hippies of the era) never forgot the tunes. At his request, the band is getting back together.

The first half of 40 Years uses talking-head interviews and old photographs to detail the personnel changes and living conditions of this very dedicated “back to nature” outfit. The second half tries to resolve decades-long schisms using the most basic reality show techniques. But the big finish (a reunion concert, naturally) is surprisingly effective. Only a monster would begrudge Aronsohn for putting this all together. It doesn’t hurt that Magic Music really do have some chops.

40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie
Directed by Lee Aronsohn
Paladin
Opens August 3, Village East Cinema

 

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The Infinite Worlds of Arthur Russell

At first, Charles Arthur Russell was just Charley. Growing up in Iowa during the Fifties and Sixties, Charley vacationed in the Midwest and Mexico with his parents and two sisters. As a teenager, Charley decided he wanted to be called Arthur. When he moved to Northern California in 1968 and found his way into a Buddhist commune, he was renamed Jigmé. It didn’t last. But he settled on Arthur when he moved to New York in 1973 at twenty-two, bringing all his places and names with him.

Before dying of AIDS-related illnesses in 1992, at forty, Russell checked off many boxes, usually at the same time. But his vision of small and large ensemble work with the unspecified duration of a Buddhist mantra and the hubcap glow of a Beach Boys single was no easy sell — at least, not until his records were reissued in the early 21st century. Now people move to New York because of Arthur.

Russell played in rock bands, wrote folk songs, produced rubbery disco epics, and inverted most of the forms he participated in. First, though, he was a cellist studying both Indian and Western classical music. Once in New York, Russell worked on a hybrid of notation and improvisation he had begun developing in San Francisco. In 1973, he finished an open-ended piece called “City Park,” which used bits of poems by Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. Russell’s professor at the Manhattan School of Music, serialist composer Charles Wuorinen, reacted by saying, “That’s the most unattractive thing I’ve ever heard.” (There is no recording of “City Park,” so we cannot replay this match.)

Russell performing in 1979 at the Kitchen, where he served as musical director in the mid-Seventies.

By April of 1979, Russell was concentrating on dance tracks. Though he had put out a single on Sire Records, he was no more at home inside the pop industry than he had been at an uptown college. After hearing Russell’s submission to Warner Brothers, a&r man Michael Ostin submitted a handwritten note. He described Russell’s “instrumental performance” as “uneventful”; the “vocal performance” prompted Ostin to write, “This guys [sic] in trouble.” His summary: “Who knows what this guy is up to — you figure it out — give me a break.”

Russell was up to many things. Another of his inventions was a form of pop using the tools of modern classical, sort of. With little more than a cello, a fuzz pedal, and very quiet vocals, Russell created a body of songs that were economical, sweet, and pop-smart, with a slippery tonality that suggested neither Top 40 nor lieder. The first album in this style, World of Echo, came out in 1986 on a label called Upside that was also releasing records by Jonathan Richman and the Woodentops. The reaction from critics was almost uniformly positive, but the first pressing of World of Echo sold fewer than a thousand copies. This time, Russell didn’t wait for someone else to characterize the project. He asked the label to attach a sticker to the remaining three hundred copies of World of Echo, one black word on a white oval: “UNINTELLIGIBLE.” “It was Arthur’s way of saying to people, ‘Don’t expect to get it the first time, or the second time. Don’t listen to it that way,’ ” Upside boss Barry Feldman says in Tim Lawrence’s Russell biography, Hold On to Your Dreams.

“I had never seen the rejection notes from the record companies until the exhibit,” says bassist Ernie Brooks, Russell’s collaborator on many projects, including the Necessaries and the Flying Hearts. “Over the last several years, people have started understanding what was great about how Arthur sang and wrote songs. His singing seemed so effortless — he was never striving for drama. But that’s not what was going on at the time. It was the punk moment at CBGB, and here was Arthur doing these quiet pop songs. He conveyed so much affect in an affectless way.”

The strongest album of the voice-and-cello songs didn’t come out during his lifetime — Another Thought was compiled and issued on Philip Glass’s label, Point, in 1994. Russell’s bigger career has been the posthumous one, and began in earnest when Steve Knutson’s Audika label launched in 2004. Dedicated to Russell’s work, Audika has steadily released unheard recordings, as well as those that have fallen out of print. Audika and the 2009 publication of Hold On to Your Dreams have helped move Russell’s work into a pop canon that has become (almost) as accepting as he was.

The origins of the Russell exhibit currently showing at BAM, “Do What I Want: Selections From the Arthur Russell Papers,” lie in two 2015 concerts (featuring Devonté Hynes, Sam Amidon, and others) that followed a tribute album released by the Red Hot organization, Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell. At one show, BAM’s curator of visual arts, Holly Shen, started talking about Russell’s work with independent curator Nicole Will. At that fall’s Editions and Artists book fair, Will and Shen heard from rare-book collector Arthur Fournier that the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts was about to acquire Russell’s papers, and the planning began.

Arthur Russell, on the beach, c. 1980, a decade before his AIDS-related death at forty

“Russell’s music feels important to me because it never seems nostalgic,” Will said while we toured the exhibit. “It doesn’t seem to be tied to any particular era. Steve [Knutson] has told me about hearing Arthur playlists in cafés. Young people hear it and say, ‘Great. Where is he playing next?’ ”

“Do What I Want” is split into two parts, the larger section in the Natman Room on the ground floor of the Peter Jay Sharp Building, with a sidecar upstairs in the Diker Gallery. Some pieces on display are reproductions from the archives at the NYPL, which will open to public view later this year. The majority of the material, though, comes from Russell’s partner, Tom Lee; Knutson; and former collaborators such as Peter Zummo, Peter Gordon, Brooks, and Steven Hall: flyers, photographs, records, snarky notes from label executives, lyrics, and Russell’s Yamaha KM802 Mixer, a fat black box striped with green and salmon.

All of Russell’s various styles involve references to natural phenomena common to both the landscape of the Midwest and the symbols of Buddhism. Check the song titles: “Lucky Cloud,” “Corn,” “Hollow Tree,” “Tree House” — even “This Is How We Walk on the Moon” makes more sense as a song written by an Iowa kid, who would have seen that moon more clearly than his New York counterpart. To this point, one corner of the Natman Room is wallpapered with a blown-out blue-and-white image of a cloud, a photograph taken by Russell’s San Francisco Buddhism teacher, Yuko Nonomura.

This year, Audika released an hour of live recordings of Instrumentals, taken from three different New York performances staged between 1975 and 1978. Even for those already converted to Russell’s benevolent sprawl, the range is immense. Track two on Volume 1, Part I — all are untitled — could be an easy-listening version of a Seventies Bacharach ballad. The legato horn parts on track two of Volume 2, Part II, conducted by Julius Eastman, sound like a Michael Nyman soundtrack from the early Nineties. Track one of Volume 2 evokes the placid, unevenly spaced, evenly delivered motifs of Tortoise; another instrumental the optimistic swells of Copland. As important as the ambition is the tentative quality of these performances. Russell’s desire to make trained players work in an accessible but skewed language is audible in dropped cues and occasional misalignment between instruments. Instrumentals is a document of an ensemble looking for a footing, a process Russell often said was more important than the result.

Typewritten notes included in the exhibit show how Russell’s path could be as confusing for collaborators as it was for suits. Russell wrote: “Since January of 1975 I have been working…on music designed specially for a series of color slides by Yuko Nonomuro [sic]….I was awakened, or re-awakened to the bright-sound and magical qualities of the bubblegum and easy-listening currents in American popular music….Since in most popular music a lyric is the focus of a song, and since in popular music a song without words, in order to be a commercial success, must have a special quality of its own, and since the music for the color slides was not structured on speech patterns, I ended up calling the piece ‘Instrumentals.’ ” Flautist and saxophonist Jon Gibson had a different take: “One of the difficulties (or should I say challenges?) in learning Arthur Russell’s new work involved trying to improvise with unfamiliar chord sequences placed upon asymmetrical (at times) time lengths.” Though Russell imagined it would be performed as one 48-hour cycle, Instrumentals was only ever played in smaller chunks, not all of which were recorded.

Richard Reed Parry, composer and member of Arcade Fire, found Arthur in 2005. “Rough Trade put out the Arcade Fire and the first two Audika releases, Calling Out of Context and World of Echo,” Parry recalled. “Neil Young’s Decade, those two Arthur CDs, and a Discman was all the music I had with me for while we were touring nonstop for about four months. I loved being immersed in these fragmentary bits of poetry and musical ideas. Exploring them seemed more important to Russell than finishing a record. The irony is that he did make some perfect pop songs, fully realized things, but he was happy being in the process of finding an idea that could reiterate itself across different songs.”

In the Diker Gallery, you see evidence of the (slightly) more commercial side of Russell, dance music producer. Sealed copies of Dinosaur L’s “Go Bang!” and Loose Joints’ “Is It All Over My Face,” both New York City club hits, hang on the wall, as does an enlarged copy of Russell’s membership card to the Paradise Garage, the club where New York dance music was legislated: If something went over at the Garage, it had impressed both dancers and DJs.

A working cassette of “Telling No One”

One record that connects all of Arthur’s worlds is his very first commercial release, the 1978 single “Kiss Me Again,” credited to Dinosaur and present in the Diker Gallery as a bright red vinyl twelve-inch. A disco track with a modest chart life but a robust presence in downtown clubs, “Kiss Me Again” had nine different physical releases and five remixes, at a time when releasing even one remix was still unusual. Sire, new to the disco market, was grappling with a thirteen-minute song and looking for the version that might break it on radio. Russell wasn’t interested in shortening the song, and the remixes didn’t help sell it. So Russell got the variation he loved, but for the wrong reasons.

A recent signing to Sire, David Byrne, played guitar on “Kiss Me Again”; r&b designated hitter Bob Babbitt played bass; studio heavy Allan Schwartzberg was the drummer; and friends of Russell’s including Peters Zummo and Gordon played horns. Though there is a topline vocal, the length and vagueness of the song make it both glorious and impossible to reduce. Find the version that clocks in at 12:42 and you’ll hear Byrne’s rhythm guitar work itself into a blur around the ten-minute mark, moving from a clean chicken-scratch to a fuzzy German chug. The main hook seems to be the horn line, until Russell’s cello part comes in; both are more memorable than the vocal melody. While sounding absolutely nothing like Instrumentals, “Kiss Me Again” presents the same sense of indeterminacy: equally strong sections that could be arranged in any order without depleting the vibrancy or masking the voice.

On April 20, Matt Wolf’s elegant documentary on Russell, Wild Combination, will be shown at BAM, as will Phill Niblock’s short movie from 1988, Terrace of Unintelligibility, a twenty-minute close-up of Russell’s mouth near a microphone, filmed while he played cello and sang. Two days later, on the 22nd, BAM will host a free tribute concert led by a clutch of Russell’s original collaborators. Go to both — but in the meantime, go to the Natman Room and look at my favorite of the seeds on display.

Russell always carried a piece of composition paper, folded into quarters, in his front shirt pocket. Some of these sheets were used for compositions, but many were just notes (or phone numbers). These were ideas, not lyrics, sometimes put into parentheses; some are works yet to be finished, others predictions that came true. “Exploit fact that amorphous material is always in sync when greeted by a drumbeat.” “Speaker cabinets that are paraplegics.” “Nature documentary on radio with crunching sound effects only.”

One of them reads like a sticker Russell might have printed up for this exhibit. He just didn’t get around to it. “(p Idea: its clear that any style can be heard [in] the recording, yet critics continue to put a ‘price’ on the trappings of form, really in the imagination) (sometimes very clearly).”

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Valerie June Contends With a Legacy of Struggle and Sacrifice

While it’s interesting to ponder for its narrative possibility, the idea that an artist could ever emerge fully formed is curious — especially at the moment of their breakthrough. When Valerie June’s official-label debut, Pushin’ Against a Stone (Concord Music Group), started gaining critical momentum in 2013, it was hailed in several quarters as a neatly gestated statement of purpose from a newcomer. In truth, the Tennessee native was already in her thirties, and her career to that point had progressed in fits and starts for several years, during which she hustled to establish herself on the Memphis scene. Along the way, she appeared on a short-lived MTV web series and did “anything that’s not illegal or degrading,” as she once put it, to make ends meet. The iteration of Pushin’ Against a Stone that was eventually released featured re-recordings of songs that had been in the works since 2010; far from being June’s first album, it was actually her third as a solo artist.

That her breakout collection of “organic moonshine roots music” sounded effortless to newly converted fans is a testament to her talent as a songwriter and instrumentalist, but June, 35, knows a few things about time, in particular just how long it can take to achieve something true. Her new album, The Order of Time, luxuriates in patience and the slow burn, drawing power from surrendering to both.

Opener “Long Lonely Road” sets the tone for the album, but it’s not one of sadness, as the title might imply. June instead finds inspiration in her own lineage, reliving the history of generations that came before her, whose sacrifices were made so that one day she could find her own path through the world. Her vocal performance grinds down to almost a whisper as she sings about her formative years, preserving that family history on record (“Pops earned his bread in dust/But his hardworking hands fed us/Sun up to sun sink down/His body worked to the ground.”) Strings, keys, and percussion are all at work, too, combined here and in ever more compelling ways on the rest of the album to form the unique blend of folk and soul June calls her own.

Her voice is perfectly suited for roots music; equal parts twang and drawl, it hovers somewhere between Erykah Badu and Joanna Newsom. At times she lets it creep along, wielding it to pick apart a failing romance (“Love You Once Made”) or to caution against waiting to acknowledge love until after it’s gone (“If And”). The grandeur of the latter track owes in part to a sweeping harmonium melody, which should sound out of place — these days the instrument is more readily associated with music from the Indian
subcontinent than Appalachia — but instead envelops the electric guitar riffs and subtle percussion to deliver one of the album’s most memorable pieces.

The instrumentation is as much a character on The Order of Time as June’s voice. A strong supporting cast of musicians takes on synth and percussion duties while she reigns over the fretboards, playing either the acoustic guitar, electric guitar, or banjo on all but one of the album’s twelve tracks. Her deft hand lends itself naturally to musical styles and traditions that are quintessentially American. But June was initially apprehensive of her own national market, choosing to release Pushin’ Against a Stone in the United Kingdom several months before she brought it back home.

Her guardedness at the time was at once a preemptive strike against being marketed the wrong way as a black artist and a means to flirt with stardom before taking a chance on the kind of fame and visibility that is possible on American soil. On The Order of Time June frees herself from any unease, leaning at will into the blues, country, rock, and even a little pop. Lead single “Astral Plane” reflects this lightness of spirit quite literally, as she implores an unknown entity to look within for wisdom and to trust in patience as an intractable aspect of self-discovery (“Is there a light/You have inside you can’t touch/A looking glass/Can only show you so much”).

She seems primarily interested in going beyond the surface of life’s truisms and taking stock of the lessons learned through careful observation of its patterns and rhythms. Heartbreak is a recurring theme, and June makes peace with the fact that time is just as good for strengthening a bond as destroying one. Her resilience is apparent, and there is a certain quiet confidence to the album’s unrushed pace, evident on songs like “The Front Door” and “Slip Slide on By.” In the latter third there is almost a sense that the record is running out of steam, but closer “Got Soul,” with its opening blast of horns, gives it a welcome shot in the arm. “I could sing you a country tune/And carry the name Sweet Valerie June/But I got soul, I got sweet soul,” she intones as backing vocals, guitars, piano, and fiddle join the mix.
“I could play you, play you the blues/To help carry the load while you’re paying your dues/But I got soul. I got sweet soul.”

 

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Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt Make Sweet Music Together

The folk duo Nancy And Beth was born in the a/c-chilled comfort of a pickup truck’s cab on an unbearably hot afternoon in Austin, Texas. Stephanie Hunt slid into the passenger seat next to Megan Mullally, like her a musician-turned-actor presently seeking to escape a sun-soaked indie film set. Hunt had in hand the ukulele she carted around to pass the time between takes. This particular afternoon in 2011, with the thermometer topping 110, she’d asked Mullally to sing with her for the first time. “The minute we heard our voices together, we stopped and looked at each other wide-eyed,” Mullally remembers. “We could not believe we blended so well.”

Six years later, they remember the same moments the same way and get excited over the same things. Like, for instance, the day they went from being unfamiliar co-workers on the set to mutual sidekicks, weeks before they sang together. Hunt, a native Texan who played Jesse Plemons’s bandmate on Friday Night Lights, offered to show Mullally around town on an afternoon off from shooting (the film, Somebody Up There Likes Me, starred Mullally’s husband, Nick Offerman, with Hunt in a supporting role and Mullally in a cameo). They bought movie tickets and drove around until showtime.

“I must have been really nervous being seen hanging out with Megan, and I rumpled my ticket so badly that it fell out of my pocket and I couldn’t find it,” Hunt says. “I looked under my seat in the car and there was this tiny ball of paper, so wadded up, and we were like, That could not be your ticket!” It was, although, as Mullally reflects, “I didn’t know it was physically possible for a piece of paper to become that small.” The bond was instant: “We just about fell over laughing.”

The partnership began in earnest in 2012, when Hunt was opening for Offerman at a comedy show and Mullally joined her for a single song. It has steadily evolved since. “Eventually we were doing every song together, and then we very gingerly added some choreography,” Mullally says. “And that snowballed, and now we have choreography for every song.” As of April 7, they also have a self-titled debut album of ten bluesy covers, sung in the same perfectly matched tandem they discovered in that frigid pickup.

“That’s the underbelly of the whole thing, Stephanie and I and our rapport,” Mullally says. “It’s the ephemeral, indefinable thing about the band that sets it apart. And it’s something we don’t think about or talk about, it’s just what it is. It’s weird because no one has ever said we’re like mother-daughter. You’d think people would constantly be asking if Stephanie is my daughter, but they never do.”

Shared humor aside, Nancy And Beth is not a comedy act like Garfunkel & Oates or the Lonely Island. Because both women are lifelong musicians — Hunt taught violin in high school, and Mullally played in bands before she started acting — their songs are bluegrass-influenced covers of a wide array of American genres, from country to swing to Atlanta trap. “We’re celebrating performing music in the old-fashioned way that performers used to get to do it, singing other people’s songs you love that haven’t been heard for so long,” Hunt says. “There’s a restriction to writing and performing your own songs where you’re painfully self-aware, but with Nancy And Beth we just love music.”

Songs make the cut per a charming and highly subjective process. “Did Stephanie tell you about the Freakout List?” asks Mullally. She did: When the band started to become A Band, she and Mullally both made a massive playlist of songs they loved, irrespective of genre or era, and played them for each other. “The ones where we play it and we’re just like, ‘Yes!’ are the ones we perform,” Hunt says. “It’s a really pure, childlike place of joy that drives our decision-making,” adds Mullally.

That’s how the Nancy And Beth tracklist wound up as diverse as it is. It shuffles eras and genres, with George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today” popping up four tracks after Gucci Mane’s “I Don’t Love Her” and Rufus Wainwright’s “Vibrate” following the Clovers’ r&b romper “One Mint Julep.” A motley assortment, but American to its core. The only constant through the ten selections is the women’s twinned voices: Mullally’s a little more nasally, always on the melody, just ever so slightly edging over Hunt’s smooth harmonies.

And then there’s the choreography, which Mullally decided to add to spice up a performance on Conan in 2012. Before becoming an actor, she’d studied at the School of American Ballet, but dancing was new to Hunt. “At the beginning everything was really loose — we’re kinda dancing and kind of not,” Mullally says. “But now it’s full-on that it’s definitely happening. It goes from one extreme to another, sometimes very showbiz but in some songs very small.”

It’s simple, but not easy. “I learn a lot about body control from Megan,” says Hunt, who took social dancing lessons as a teenager but not classical technique. “She has such control of her body and her lines. I didn’t realize how many tiny muscles there were in every pose.” As the two get ready for a national tour, she’s taken up kickboxing to stay in shape.

The cover of the album sets the duo’s synchronicity in stark relief: It’s a straight-on photo of the two of them standing next to each other, full frontal and expressionless, the looping cursive of “Nancy And Beth” fig-leafing the required parts. And from the neck down they’re nearly indistinguishable — same height, shape, size, everything. “Age is irrelevant,” says Mullally. “This is about friendship, shared womanhood, just two humans hanging out on the planet. Our voices are so perfectly matched, and so are our physical selves.”

So what if they’re thirty years apart and at radically different stages in their careers? “We’ve never said this out loud, but it feels like a game that we’re playing together,” Hunt says. “It’s just girls hanging out and doing this thing that’s fun.”


Nancy And Beth play Joe’s Pub on Monday, April 10 and Tuesday, May 9.

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Q&A: Bluegrass Legend Del McCoury on Interpreting Guthrie

When Nora Guthrie, founder and director of the Woody Guthrie Archives, heard Del McCoury perform at the 2009 Newport Folk Festival, she heard the voice she wanted to sing her father’s songs. “I had the feeling of coming home. Back to Woody,” she told the Voice. Although the folk icon died in 1967, just a few years after McCoury had gotten his start, McCoury’s hillbilly back-porch warble conjures the same authentic spirit that Bob Dylan and other Guthrie fans so love.

McCoury’s latest album is Del and Woody, a collection of interpretations of never-before-heard Guthrie lyrics, largely about the folk legend’s wide-eyed first days in New York City. It’s an innocence that clearly spoke to McCoury: Born in 1939 in York, Pennsylvania, Delano Floyd McCoury started out as one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in ’63, eventually going solo, forming his own outfit with the Grammy-winning Del McCoury Band, and founding his own bluegrass festival, DelFest. He’s won thirty-one International Bluegrass Music Awards and is nominated for six more this year. In 2010, he received a National Heritage Fellowship lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts; the next year he was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame.

In anticipation of his show with mandolin virtuoso David Grisman at City Winery on August 21, we talked to McCoury about the making of his remarkable record.

Village Voice: How did Del and Woody get started?
Del McCoury: I’ll tell you what happened. Nora Guthrie came to me and said, “Would you mind writing music to some songs?” I was really honored. But I thought, boy, I don’t know if I should mess with Woody Guthrie! But she wanted me to do it, so if she wants me to do it, I guess it’s OK.

She sent me some songs and we went in the studio and recorded them. I’ve never done that before, writing music to lyrics someone else wrote. Here all these words are, here in front of me on a piece of paper — the work’s half done! I need to get more people to do that for me. [Laughs]

What did it feel like to hold these original lyrics in your hands?
It was really something, [to know] that this guy wrote on this page in 1935. It’s a special thing. And he had a way with words. It’s funny, you know — he was from the country, and he probably talked like someone from the country, and he’d spell [phonetically]. He has one title, “Wimmen’s Hats.” He had his own way of spelling, but he was a smart guy.

Some [songs] were in his own handwriting; some are typed out. He wrote about everything he saw and heard — he was a true songwriter. He didn’t write because he had to, he wrote because he loved to, you know? Usually, all throughout my career, I’d say, “I’m going to the studio to do a record,” and they say, “We need more songs,” so I have to go back and write, because I was forced to write. But Woody, that’s a true songwriter.

How long did the project take?
[Not] very long. I have a little tape recorder, about as big as a cellphone, and when I got a melody and key, I’d sing it into this thing, because if not, tomorrow I’d forget the melody. Once I had them all on this little tape recorder, my son Ronnie — he’s good at arranging instrumental parts — he’d say, “Oh, the fiddle ought to play this part, the mandolin here.” I don’t think we had one rehearsal before we went to the studio; it was pretty quick. We recorded it in the Butcher Shoppe [a Nashville studio co-owned by John Prine]. The reason they call it the Butcher Shoppe, it’s an old slaughterhouse. They brought cattle and hogs in there.

Do you have favorite songs on the record?
I don’t know if I have favorites. I like a variety of moods — sad, happy, uptempo, slow. I like a record that way. [But] one I recorded, “Wimmen’s Hats” — [Guthrie] was really excited about all these women wearing the fashionable hats in this big city. [When the Oklahoma native first arrived in New York City] he sat down on a curbstone and he described what those hats looked like to him. [Laughs] And you wouldn’t think a guy could write a whole song about women’s hats, but he did.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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Born to Be Mild: Toronto’s Strumbellas Perfect the Neo-Folk Anthem

“We’re the lamest band of all time, for sure,” says Simon Ward, vocalist and guitarist of the Strumbellas. “We like to focus on getting to bed real early.”

It’s 11 a.m. on a Thursday at Trinity Bellwoods Park in the West Queen West neighborhood, Toronto’s answer to Williamsburg. Not a morning person, I am still chugging coffee in an effort to match Ward’s already high energy level; I joke that I never really know what to expect during a.m. interviews with musicians who might have been out partying the night before. But it quickly becomes apparent that the Strumbellas, a poppy outfit with a formidable arsenal of sing-along neo-folk, aren’t exactly hard-living rock stars (Ward even used to be an elementary school teacher).

“We went to some after-parties at the Junos the year that we won, [in] 2014, but it was mostly just nice. I don’t know if that was a Canadian thing,” says David Ritter, who provides keyboards and vocals and has plopped down next to Ward at our picnic table. “You hear of someone at the hotel, like, ‘There was this crazy party’ — ”

“But we were never invited!” Ward jumps in, cutting off his bandmate.

Ritter leans over and shouts into my recorder, “Let us know where the party’s at!”

Village Voice readers! We don’t have a lot of friends,” adds Ward.

With his beard, baseball cap, plaid shirt, and tattoos, Ward, 33, looks like any of the dozens of other locals in the park. At the moment, Trinity Bellwoods is filled with people who don’t have anywhere else to be on a weekday morning: retirees and families with small children, twenty- and thirtysomethings with creative jobs. I found myself thinking that all of them would find something to like in the Strumbellas’ catchy melodies, which the New York Times recently called “as good-hearted as all get-out.”

The music “is not so much about trying to please [certain] people,” says Ritter, 36. “It’s more like, [our records] are going to sound like they came from these people — us — who our fans know.” Clean-shaven and bespectacled, Ritter often lets Ward speak first before stepping in to clarify his bandmate’s digressive musings with careful, polished explanations.

The two met in 2008, when Ward posted on Craigslist looking for musicians to “come over and jam.” Ritter was one of the first to respond, and he and Ward clicked instantly. Violinist Isabel Ritchie was also a Craigslist find, although the rest of the respondents were duds. Ward eventually recruited the remainder of the lineup — Darryl James, Jeremy Drury, and Jon Hembrey — from his hometown of Lindsay, Ontario, where he still lives.

A band of that size is going to make some noise. The Strumbellas are very, very good at writing anthems, a word that’s used a lot in pop-music writing but one that has rarely felt more accurate than when referring to this particular act’s third album, Hope, which arrived last April. The record offers many catchy tracks: Hypnotically repetitive verses build up to euphoric choruses that sound like movie scores for charming countryside montages — kisses on hayrides, stargazing in open fields, whatever romance city people imagine happens in rural life.

It’s also the Strumbellas’ most ambitious album. The songs follow a traditional pop structure, but the band is clearly striving for a bigger sound. Every track features a forceful drumbeat, Ritchie’s understated but effective fiddle, group vocals on the choruses for added dramatic effect, and no shortage of handclaps and foot-stomps. They tapped a new producer, Dave Schiffman, because they liked the work he did on Toronto pop-punk group Pup’s debut album. “We knew exactly what we wanted,” says Ritter of Schiffman. “We just needed someone who could help us with that.”

Making the album accessible was a priority. “[Ward] sent me this demo that pretty much sounded like full-on pop songs,” Schiffman says via phone. “It was about hybridizing this idea of a Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus big chorus, but having that intimate acoustic thing the Strumbellas do, and to make it fit. That was the goal. I feel as if we pulled it off.”

Maybe that’s because Ward, who writes the bulk of the songs, comes up with a melody or mood first and finds words to fit later. Ward thinks of himself as the furthest thing from a traditional writer. “I just don’t often understand lyrics that are [meant to be] poetic,” he says. “I tried to learn poetry in university and I had a really hard time with the concepts.” Take the chorus of “We Don’t Know,” which reads almost like a motivational poster: “We don’t know the roads that we’re headed down/But we all know if we’re lost then we’ll find a way.” But Ward’s tender voice and the band’s melodious cacophony add a pathos that makes the lyric feel momentous.

“I think Simon’s going for the feeling,” explains Ritter. “He’s not going for something that’s too abstract or too narrative. He’s going [for] the gut.” (The band rarely touches his lyrics, although Ritter says they sometimes tease him for what they refer to as “Simonisms.” “He’ll try and say, ‘It’s a metaphor,’ but [instead] he’ll say” — Ritter perfectly adopts Ward’s laid-back drawl — ” ‘Guys, it’s just a metaphysical. Don’t worry about it.’ “)

By far, the standout song on the album is “Spirits,” which you’ve heard even if you don’t know it — the track is quickly becoming one of those ubiquitous hits whose origin you don’t discover until years after it begins appearing everywhere. Its catchiness is designed to make even the most cynical experimental-music fan give in, let go, and sing along.

And of course, there’s no better way to listen to these songs than on a blanket with a beer, so it’s appropriate that the Strumbellas will be co-headlining 4Knots on July 9. I ask them if they plan on spending time exploring the city. Ward has one plan, and partying is not it.

“I wanna go on the Ghostbusters tour,” he says. “That’s high on my list.”

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Oh Pep! Aim for the Big Leagues With an Ambitious Folk-Pop Debut

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate introduction to Oh Pep! than “Bushwick,” the opening track from the Australian folk-pop outfit’s debut album, Stadium Cake. Starting off slow and spare — all delicate strumming and hushed vocals — it soon grows into something fast, boisterous, and baroque,
a statement of intent that highlights the group’s ambition to be more than just a folk act. About the difficulty of finding your way as a twentysomething (even Australians view Bushwick as a signifier
of youth, apparently), it’s the kind of song that doesn’t require an appreciation of slide guitars and banjos to dig.

Olivia Hally and Pepita Emmerichs, both 24, have been playing together since they met at secondary school in Melbourne, and their comfort with each other is appealingly apparent throughout the album’s 44 minutes. Having already released three EPs — Oh Pep!, II, and Living — since 2012, this band is working on pushing its sound, previously more traditionally folk, in new directions. If you’ve listened to
indie rock over the past two-plus decades, you’ve encountered your fair share of folk-inspired acts, like Bon Iver and Band of Horses, or straight-up contemporary folk acts, like Lord Huron and the Avett Brothers. There are obvious similarities between Oh Pep! and some of these artists — acoustic instrumentation, a deep reliance on harmonies, plenty of twang — but on their newest endeavor, released June 24, Hally and Emmerichs don’t seem particularly
interested in following suit. Dreams of No. 1 singles may not be dancing through their heads, but they clearly have an eye on crossing over and proving that folk can be more cosmopolitan.

From the get-go it’s clear that Stadium Cake is a pop album; it’s simply crafted, using the tools of folk, bluegrass, and country. Uptempo earworms like “The Race,” for instance, could have been recorded by Demi Lovato, though she probably would have forgone the fiddle and mandolin. And even slower tracks, like the torch song “Crazy Feels,” have a belt-me-out quality. This is due to Hally’s piercing voice, reminiscent of Rilo Kiley–era Jenny Lewis and a clear highlight of every track. On Facebook, the group describe their sound as “sometimes foot-stomping, somewhat heart-breaking,” and, at their best, it’s an apt assessment.

Each of Stadium Cake‘s twelve songs houses a whole lot of craft. Recording the album in Nova Scotia, the band worked in multi-track for the first time. Songs like “Wanting” are packed with horns, pianos, and syncopated drum loops; such ornate instrumentation often creates impressively intricate soundscapes. There’s also a welcome unpredictability to many of the tracks — “Only Everyone” starts at a crawl before mutating into a lush, swaying Dirty Projectors–esque number — that shows Oh Pep!’s willingness to experiment with structure.

Taken too far, though, these virtues become cloying. The band could have focused on the hook of “Doctor Doctor” — “I know what I want and it’s not what I need” — rather than drowning the track in dense layers of strings, intricate banjo picking, and harmonies. And, clocking in at a little over five minutes, album centerpiece “Tea, Milk and Honey,” with its random assortment of crescendos and breakdowns, is
a slog to get through. Meanwhile, lyrics about the emotional roller coaster of early adulthood, mostly addressing an unnamed “you,” could have dug deeper, or used a bit more finesse.

Oh Pep! have crafted a engaging album of folk-pop, one that’ll be good for fans of the genre to put on repeat this summer. Only thing is, they clearly set out to surpass this audience. Hally and Emmerichs aren’t where they want to be just yet, but keep an eye on them: There are sure signs that they can get there.

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Down Under Blues: Australia’s C.W. Stoneking Is a Roots Music Disciple

C.W. Stoneking is, as far as I can tell, the hottest — and most enigmatic — blues artist in Australia. Born in the city of Katherine, in the Northern Territories, and raised in part by his poet father in the mostly indigenous town of Papunya, Stoneking is startling not because he does something new but because he barely does anything new at all. Where most like-minded musicians over the past fifty years, from Eric Clapton to Jack White, have used the blues as a launchpad for blues-rock, this Brylcreem-loving father of four howls harrowing, stripped-down music that sounds like a product of the Deep South — that is, the American Deep South — circa 1930. He uses long-dead slang, as on the title of his new album, Gon’ Boogaloo, and he often draws his voice so that it resembles that of, say, Charley Patton.

So, the obvious question, which I finally ask about halfway into our recent interview: C.W. Stoneking, are you a white guy trying to sound black? Or at least, are you trying to make songs that sound like black songs? “Well, yeah, most of the music I listen to was made by black people,” he explains. “[That’s] not really the reasoning, though. It’s just the sound I favor. I [have] a textural palette that tends to fall into that category, but I don’t categorize it as that, generally, or think of it in that way.” The relationship, as far as he’s concerned, is purely aesthetic.

Born in 1974, Christopher William Stoneking’s (yes, his real last name) first favorite artists were not old blues singers but Kiss, the Bee Gees, and Ted Egan, a contemporary Australian folk singer famous for hand-drumming on empty Foster’s boxes. Stoneking got his first guitar when he was eleven; by high school, he was listening to the blues compilations on his father’s record shelf, which were full of both old stars like Blind Willie McTell and the kinds of curious rarities — he mentions David Wylie’s “You’re Gonna Weep and Moan” — that can send serious collectors on a decades-long goose-chase.

Rather than track down old artists, though, Stoneking slowly learned to play their music. “I stopped hanging with people from my own age group for a while there,” he says, recalling the years after high school when he kicked around Australia’s blues scene. But even then, he often felt alienated: Most players he met preferred electric Chicago-style blues over his beloved hokum, or country, blues, and beyond aesthetics, they didn’t — as he puts it — “seem like the most thinkin’ bunch of musicians.”

This disappointment in unthinking players becomes disdain when our conversation turns to Australia’s well-documented racism, impossible to ignore when you’re talking about the blues. “There’s a terrible history, and people keep on doing it,” says Stoneking, citing both violent crimes against Aborigines and the island refugee prisons that now dot the coast. I ask if this history affects the way that blues is understood in Australia. “I don’t think anyone in the blues scene cares about that,” he tells me. “Most of those guys are more about strutting around with their fedoras on and playing ‘hot licks.’ ” Stoneking says he doesn’t share that attitude. “For anyone who’s got a soul, that [history] will bleed into what they do.”

Objecting to both the indifference and the licks, Stoneking began playing solo shows at rock clubs, and in 2007 he earned an ARIA nomination (the Australian equivalent of a Grammy) for King Hokum. With his American South–accented singing and jarring austerity, Stoneking pursues a romantic notion of the blues as outsider art, the stuff of mysterious, idiosyncratic loners.

This myth has captivated music fans (particularly white ones) since at least 1961, when Columbia reissued American blues singer Robert Johnson’s catalog. Gon’ Boogaloo tells a different story, recovering another side of the music — blues as a popular art form, with dance beats and catchy choruses indebted to the Latin dance music from the Fifties and Sixties from which the record takes its name. “Tomorrow Gon’ Be Too Late” includes a spoken-word intro that even invokes early r&b groups like the Dells, and “The Jungle Swing” could almost pass for a loose Chuck Berry outtake.

Stoneking recorded the album in a two-day time warp during which he, a small band, and a few backup singers performed live in front of a pair of vintage microphones routed to a Fifties-era two-track tape machine. “I gotta tell you, it was hard and I didn’t quite get it in the beginning,” says Vika Bull, one of the singers, “but when I heard the end result I thought it was brilliant.” The LP won the 2015 ARIA for Best Blues & Roots Album, high contemporary praise for a record that, thanks to its production value, sounds like it arrived over half a century ago.

Which demands another obvious question: C.W. Stoneking, do you consider your music retro? In this response he sounds frustrated. “I don’t really know what that means,” he sighs. For him, Gon’ Boogaloo can’t be “retro” or “nostalgic” because the blues is about immediacy, the feeling that hits you the moment you hear it, and that’s outside of time. “I go for maximum power,” he says, pointing again to the starkness of both his sound and his lyrics. “If someone dies in my songs, they’re not ‘dead and gone.’ They’re allowed to just be dead.”

C.W. Stoneking plays at Rough Trade on Thursday, May 26, and at Mercury Lounge on Friday, May 27.