I might get some heat for this, since I’m not sure if Field Report is considered “roots music” or lies more in the “indie” realm, but whenever I hear the words and vocals of lead singer and songwriter Chris Porterfield, it just sounds like the kind of folk that made Bob Dylan’s early name. There’s an earnestness to the lyrics, but also a sense of larger humanity that elevates the words above your standard singer-songwriter fare. Above atmospheric electronics, thundering drumbeats, and amplified acoustic guitar fingerpicking, Portfield’s ragged voice rings out, almost tortured at times, but somehow always drawing the listener back to the lyrics. It’s a little bit of magical alchemy that only the best folk singers know; how to get the song to take the center of the stage rather than the singer. Porterfield rides the line lyrically between the indie arena anthems of Ben Gibbard and the everyman songwriting of Dylan or Townes Van Zandt. On Marigolden, his verbal alchemy is front and center, as the album features unforgettable (and quite singable) lines from “Home” like “And the body remembers what the mind forgets/Archives every heartbreak and cigarette” or “Leave the lights on/because it might be nighttime when I get there/And I’m on my way home.” Sure maybe there’s something a little emo in this music, but damn when has folk music not been emo? And for every heart-on-the-sleeve lyric, there are also wonderfully mystifying lines that still manage to carry a lot of meaning.
A lot has been made about the new album, Marigolden, and how it’s Portfield’s way of working through his newfound sobriety and that’s admirable. I’ll leave the specifics of that to those who are better at parsing lyrics than I am. All I know is that this album is instantly comforting in the very best way.
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Seattle resident by way of West Virginia, Pepper Proud has been remarkably adept at blending her Appalachian roots with a very Northwest vibe. She got her start around here participating in the Round sessions; multi-media performances at the Fremont Abbey that brought together a lot of artists in the indie scene. But she’s stayed true to her folk roots, crafting handmade songs on her first album that echoed with Appalachian sentiment. On her newest album, Water, she’s working with larger metaphysical concepts, specifically looking at the human relation with water and the natural environment. It’s a natural, if a bit ironic, thing to examine for any Seattle resident. After all, we’re surrounded by water on all sides, sandwiched between the Puget Sound and Lake Washington, and bombarded daily by deluges from the heavens. You’d have to be pretty removed from your own world in Seattle not to be thinking about water all the time. But I’ll let Pepper explain it herself, from her Kickstarter page: “I spent a lot of time during my Pacific Northwest tour camping near water, trying to find water, and being inspired by the time I spent at rivers, lakes, watersheds, hot springs, cold springs, getting drenched by rain showers and jumping in mud puddles. You see- Something special happens while staring at water- a slow river, the sea, the tide moving with precise eloquence- it sets a tone that encourages tranquility and gives the mind space- and I found myself motivated to start writing about this indispensable resource and reflect lessons I have learned from the water.”
The songs on Water are drenched in gorgeous harmonies, beautiful finger-picked acoustic guitar, and Pepper’s intertwining songwriter styles of oblique and direct lyrics. They’re tied closely to the environment, sure, but also have a very human element. It’s a compelling blend of influences and ideas and the kind of album that you love to get lost in. There’s also a kind of joyful throwback in her music to the folk singers of the 60s and 70s who weren’t afraid to where their influences and their beliefs on their sleeves. You don’t get the impression that Pepper is trying to be anything but exactly who she is, which is a really refreshing perspective in the world of indie roots music.
J.P. Harris & The Tough Choices
J.P. Harris has been riding the honky-tonk train for a little while now and he’s one of the best young voices in this tradition. His songs have the grit and swagger of the best old-school country singers, and a kind of rich baritone that lends itself perfectly to the idiom. He lives the life too. He’s a long-haul roadster pulling into dark bar after dark bar to bring a little honky-tonk sunshine into our lives. I interviewed hima little while back for Tiny Mix Tapes, and he talked about the time he spent riding the rails as a modern-day hobo (he also sent me a postcard of hobo signs he used on the road), and he talked about the fact that he’s lived the subjects of his songs, which honestly is a whole hell of a lot more than you can say about most other country singers today. He’s got a big ol’ fuckin beard and a bunch of tattoos and looks like he might be part of Hank III’s army of underground country rats, but with his new album, Home Is Where the Hurt Is, he seems content to plumb the depths of tradition instead of pushing the music to brand-new places.
Home Is Where the Hurt Is features J.P.’s friends rather than Nashville regulars. Old Crow Medicine Show’s newest member, Chance McCoy, an old friend of J.P.’s from J.P.’s days as an old-time stringband picker, jumps on fiddle and guitar duties, and indie-country star Nikki Lane shows up as well. The album was cut in Nashville, which is where J.P. lives, and I imagine it must stick out like a sore thumb in this town. With all the focus on “Americana” and all the hybrid genres they keep trying to invent, seems folks often lose sight of hwat country music really means. Not J.P. though. His country music is an exercise in restraint, a continual act of editing that pares the music down to its core in order to focus on the lyrics. With all the attention given to Sturgill Simpson’s ground-breaking country songwriting this year, I was hoping J.P. would get some of that shine as well. But perhaps he’s too subtle to be lumped in with Simpson’s meditations on lizard people and psychedelics (I guess J.P.’s song “Truckstop Amphetamines” doesn’t romanticize the right kind of illegal drugs). But any way you cut it, J.P. has a gift for words. Check out these lines from the title song, Home is Where the Hurt Is: “Sometimes you crave that which hurts you the most. I can stand the silence, the run from your ghost, so I’ll run to the places that you hated most. From the bottom of this bottle, everything looks just right. Oh, home is where the hurt is, so I stay here each night.” Other country songwriters that want to get back to the basics would do well to learn from this kind of songwriting. And folks in Nashville would do well to sit up and listen when J.P. Harris & The Tough Choices hit the stage. He’s the real fuckin’ deal.
We’ve been watching British folk singer Josienne Clarke for a while now, ever since her superb 2011 album of traditional songs, The Seas Are Deep. She’s an acclaimed songwriter and singer in the UK, known for her work with her musical partner Ben Walker, who handles most of the arrangements to her music. She’s not so well known in the US, unfortunately, though here’s hoping that her upcoming visit to the 2015 Folk Alliance International Conference will help change that. There’s certainly a lot to love in her music: rich, beautiful vocals, and strong sensibility for crafting songs that sounds as old as the hills, and masterful arrangements by Walker. With her new album, Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour, she’s mastered her true potential as an artist. It’s her best work to date and the kind of album that has the potential to turn a lot of heads. Each song is original, but you’d be hard pressed to say that “It Would Not Be A Rose” sounds like anything other than an old British ballad. With lyrics that play the kind of riddle game so beloved in old songs, this could easily pass for a Child ballad of yore, except for the fact that music sounds deeply modern. Shimmering classical strings, arranged in dense, surging rhythms, blend into East Indian-sounding drumbeats and John Renburn-esque guitar fingerpicking. At times, I’m tempted to bring up modern architecture when talking about Clarke’s new music. There’s something so precise and planned about what she’s doing, that it brings to mind the aspects of modern architecture that manage to be warm and cold at the same time. It’s as if somehow she’s crafted an austere album in terms of her vocals and lyricism, while also giving in to the sumptuousness of the album’s huge stringed arrangements.
Throughout Clarke’s voice rings with the kind of intimacy and careful thought that might be the hallmark of British folk singers, especially the great female folk singers in the UK. Her voice is fragile, yet powerful, and at times even playful. It’s not easy to bridge the gap between the cold detachment of old ballads and the warm intimacy of modern folk songwriting, but Clarke is a master at flipping between the two and a lot of that comes from the ease of her vocals, which operate so well in either realm. Together with other artists like Sam Lee, Emily Portman, Alasdair Roberts, and Rachel Sermanni, Josienne Clarke is at the front of the pack of a new generation of traditional British folk singers remaking the molds. It’s an incredibly exciting time right now for these traditions, and Clarke is already running herd with so many new and fresh ideas, as well as her ability to write original songs that mesh so well with the tradition.