Album: Tanya Tagaq
Release Date: January 21, 2022
Label: Six Shooter Records, Inc.
- Teeth Agape
Thoughts: I’ve written about Tanya Tagaq on this blog over the course of her career, but as a quick reintroduction she is an Inuk throat singer from the Nunavut territory of Canada. Her music would not be described as “beautiful,” in fact it can be downright disturbing. But it is music that is provocative in bringing attention to issues like the rights of indigenous people (including the atrocities committed at residential schools) and the dangers of climate change. Many of the songs are drawn from Tagaq’s 2018 novel Split Tooth. The album ultimately is about healing from trauma and finding hope in the future.
When writing a stripped-down song of love and love lost in the folk tradition, Boston-based musician Rachel Sumner drew on inspiration from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Read more in this piece from WBUR.
Album: The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
Artist: Valerie June
Release Date: March 12, 2001
Label: June Tunes Music
- “You and I”
- “Call Me a Fool [feat. Carla Thomas]”
Memphis-raised, Brooklyn-based vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Valerie June combines classic soul vocals with the instrumentation of folk and Appalachian music. She’s also not afraid to mix in some electronic beats from time to time. The result is music that sounds simultaneously timeless and contemporary. The legendary Carla Thomas, Queen of Memphis Soul, joins June on two tracks.
Album: Good Woman
Artist: The Staves
Release Date: February 5, 2021
- “Good Woman”
- “Nothing’s Gonna Happen”
The English folk trio of sisters Emily, Jessica and Camilla Staveley-Taylor provide beautiful, close harmonies on this set of tunes. But the sweetness of the songs does not prevent them from singing lyrics of defiance
Album: Long Day in the Milky Way
Artist: Kris Delmhorst
Release Date: August 14, 2020
Label: Big Bean Music
- “Wind’s Gonna Find a Way”
- “Nothing “Bout Nothing”
Thoughts: I first learned of Kris Delmhorst when she was playing gigs in Somerville, MA just after I moved there in the late 90s. Her albums Five Stories and Songs for a Hurricane area among my all-time favorites. But I totally missed it when her most recent album was released last August.
The album features Delmhorst’s typically well-crafted songs. I particularly like the harmonies of Rose Polenzani, Rose Cousins, and Annie Lynch on back-up vocals. But with very few exceptions the songs are all slow tempo, and just not as engaging as I’d expect. The music is pretty though, and the lyrics offer flashes of hope and healing in troubled times.
Artist: Carolina Story
Release Date: September 4, 2020
Label: Black River Americana
- Light of the Moon
- Lay Me Down Easy
Back in the late 1990s/early 2000s I was deeply invested in the contemporary Folk/Folk Rock/Folk Pop/Americana, etc. scenes. Eventually I drifted away, partly because everything started sounding the same and I wanted to hear something different. Hearing Carolina Story reminds me of the excitement of discovering something new during the height of my folkie days.
The duo is the married couple Emily and Ben Roberts of Nashville. They remind me a little bit of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer with more country twang and less mysticism. But the best thing about Carolina Story is that they interpret traditional folk sounds in a voice that’s completely their own. They are especially good using their voices to provide a wide range of expression and the instrumentation of the duo and their backing band is particularly rich.
Album: there is no Other
Artist: Rhiannon Giddens (with Franceso Turrisi)
Release Date: May 3, 2019
- Brown Baby
- Little Margaret
- Pizzica di San Vito
- Wayfaring Stranger
Rhiannon Giddens is a name I’ve heard for a while but I’d not gotten around to listening to her music. In fact, there was a time when I conflated her with the R&B singer Rihanna (ooops). Well, Rhiannon Giddens is a folk musician, although that seems inadequate to describe the masterful fusion of musical styles on this album. Giddens is joined by Italian jazz instrumentalist Franceso Turrisi on this album. Together they perform a mix of traditional and original tunes that draw on bluegrass, gospel, Italian folk tunes, Arabic, and African sounds. Many of the songs feature just two instruments with Giddens’ spinetingling vocals, while others have complex and fascinating percussion. The sound is unlike anything I’ve heard while still feeling familiar.
Album: There is Another World
Artist: Peter Mulvey
Release Date: February 15, 2019
Favorite Tracks: “Who’s Gonna Love You Now?,” “Beckett Was a Bird of Prey,” “To Your Joy,” and “Henry’s Only Daughter”
Peter Mulvey’s album shares the feeling of being alone in a cold, wintry landscape. It’s rooted in nature and the thoughts and feelings that rumble through one’s mind when completely isolated. Mulvey is no stranger to downtempo music but there’s not a single rave-up in this collection of meditative songs. Ireland – both Mulvey’s memories of being there and the msuical styles – informs the songs as well. Mulvey’s fingerpicking guitar is accompanied by fiddle on some tracks. There are experiments too: “Nickel and Dime” is 15-seconds long. “Owl” channels Tom Waits. I’ve listened to it several times so far, and I still can’t really decide what I think of it, but I know I like it.
Album: What Will We Do
Artist: Lula Wiles
Release Date: January 25, 2019
Thoughts: “Love Gone Wrong,” “If I Don’t Go,” “Good Old American Values,” “Shaking as it Turns,” “Morphine,” and “What Will We Do.”
Lula Wiles is the folk/roots music trio of Isa Burke, Ellie Buckland, and Mali Obomsawin, who met at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Their harmonies and spare arrangements are reminiscent of The Be Good Tanyas and Crooked Still (and the various bands and solo acts that have emerged from those bands). Their music has a melancholy sound that makes me want to weep happy tears. It’s also steeped in the fine folk tradition of melding the personal and political, such as songs like “Good Old American Values.”
The full album is currently available via NPR’s First Listen.
Album: All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do
Artist: Milk Carton Kids
Release Date: June 29, 2018
- Just Look at Us Now
- Mourning in America
- One More for the Road
- Big Time
- I’ve Been Loving You
The folk duo of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan are reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel – tight harmonies, introspective lyrics, and understated instrumentation. This is the first album recorded with a backing band, but nevertheless the instruments are restrained, adding resonant bass notes, thumping bass drums, and country twang only to support and emphasize the vocals. Of course, the instrumental performances should not be overlooked, and the 10 minute long “One More for the Road” is highlighted by solos that are not at all indulgent. While much of the album is inward-looking as you’d expect from contemplative folkies, “Mourning in America” is a standout political track. I don’t listen to folk music nearly as often as I did about 15-20 years ago, but this is a standout album.