While there are genres that are easy to categorize and describe, the variegated world of folk music collects a set of styles and sub-genres which are sometimes so different from each other that, in some cases, the same definition of “folk” may seem devoid of a real meaning. Without claiming to be able to present here a definitive theory about the meaning of folk music in the modern era, I believe it is possible to get a solid idea about contemporary folk through the analysis of the best artists that have been active in the recent months. This article presents a selection of the most interesting – and to some extent – influential “folk” records that were released so far in 2018. The nice thing here is that not only we will discover which are the different faces of modern folk, we will also enjoy some of the best songs that were released in recent times.
There are only few things in music that are more beautiful than the magic that’s reached when creativity and authenticity are combined with the beauty of the melodies and the depth of the songs. This special combination of factors may be found in the songs of Holly Miranda‘s latest album, Mutual Horse. Arrived at her fourth solo LP, the American singer-songwriter has definitely mastered the expressive abilities of her peculiar style and her intriguing voice. The songs of her new record, in fact, range between different and sometimes contrasting atmospheres but all of them share the same fluency and enjoyability, two characteristics which make the experience of listening like an emotional journey along delicate, quiet and sometimes poignant atmospheres. Maybe there isn’t any track with the credentials to become an “hit” and thus able to climb up the international music charts, but taken in its entirety this is probably one of the best LPs composed and recorded by Holly Miranda up to this point.
Despite being a relatively young contributor to the folk world, American songwriter Kyle Carey has already taken a prominent role among the representatives of American Celtic music, which is that special style of folk that mixes together western European sounds with American (in this case Appalachian) elements. On early 2018 she released the third full-lenght album of her discography, The Art of Forgetting, and all the good things that have been said and written of her so far are absolutely confirmed by this new record. The beauty of Carey’s last album is further enhanced by the quality of the musicians who have been called to contribute to the recording of the songs. The release notes of the LP show that Carey has called together a super team of artists. Just to mention a few ones, we have singer, violinist and banjo player Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), American guitarist Sam Broussard (from the Cajun band Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys), and Scottish folk musician and composer John McCusker.
Sean Carey, who works and plays under the moniker of S. Carey, is a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who’s mostly known as the drummer and background vocalist of the indie folk band Bon Iver. Listening to his music we realize immediately that the experience with Bon Iver has somehow marked his personal approach to composition as the songs of his solo album are characterized by an elegance, a delicacy and also a complexity that are very close to those we find in Justin Vernon’s composition. Hundred Acres, which is Carey’s third solo album, tells us about intimate and profound moments of his personal life and through words and music he adresses the importance of simple things and sincere relationships. The style is calm and reflective and in his music we find layers of sounds, ambient-like atmoshperes, light guitars and a pulsating battery that gives freshness and interest to many of the tracks of the album. In short, this is a great record that requires however the right atmosphere and also dedication to be fully appreciated. The risk is that the delicacy and elegance of these songs are absorbed and dispersed in the background noise of our activities.
Stick in the Wheel
Follow Them True is the second album from the English folk band Stick in the Wheel, and it arrives two years and half after their 2015’s debut work, From Here. Since the beginning of their career this quintet of folk enthusiasts has adopted an austere and formal approach to folk music, which is characterized also by the choice to use only acoustic instrumentation. As a result, their songs have always an ancient and suggestive charm which further exalts the fantastic voice of the singer Nicola Kearey. In the new album you won’t find danceable songs or pop-folk motifs, but rather a very good collection of ancient ballads and melodies of the past, all revisited with an aggressive spirit. Only in some moments the tension and the austherity seem to leave the field for slightly more relaxed and poetic tones, and perhaps these are the most accessible and enjoyable parts of the disc, at least for the casual listener.
First Aid Kit
First Aid Kit, the Swedish folk duo consisting of the two Söderberg sisters, released in January 2018 a new album, Ruins, which enriches an already interesting and valid discography. The album is particularly interesting because it shows a clear desire of the two sisters to experiment with new styles and directions for their music, in particular as regards the increased presence of elements of country music. Even if they’re still relatively young (the older of the two, Johanna, hasn’t reached yet her thirty years) the two Söderber sisters have already demonstrated a remarkable musical maturity, and in this respect the songs of their latest album show a further improvement in terms of musical sensibility and songwriting skills.
Australian singer-songwriter James Gabriel Wanderson Keogh, better known by his stage name Vance Joy, released on February 2018 the second LP since his debut in 2013. The new studio album, named Nation of Two, offers an enjoyable collection of romantic and acoustic folk-pop songs, which looks like an ideal continuation of what the artist had already produced in his debut work. One of the characteristic aspects of Vance Joy’s music, which may be at the same time one of the greatest limits of his production, is the ability to write simple and extremely catchy melodies, easy to assimilate even for a very large audience, but without the depth, or any unique element, that would guarantee to his songs greater intensity and also increased longevity. This quiet – and to some extent “modest” – version of indie folk certainly guaranteed him a considerable commercial success, but I believe that Vance Joy has a greater talent than what he has shown up to since today.
London singer and songwriter Lookman Adekunle Salami, best known as L.A. Salami, is one of those artists who manages to escape from easy labels. He requires, on the contrary, for his listeners to pay constant attention to each one of his songs to really appreciate its complexity and charm. Hovering constantly in a thin boudnary between pop, folk and blues, the tracks of his records seem to be written for a niche of listeners, and only sporadically the musical language of this artist manages to find a more immediate and easily understandable expression for the casual listener. On L.A. Salami’s second album, The City of Bootmakers, this unique blend of styles and inspirations leads the author to tackle deep and challenging subjects, which are treated however with an uncommon class and profoundity. The musical part isn’t always up to the author’s ambitions, but in the most successful songs we may enjoy one of the most charming and stylish songwriters of his generation.
Grant Lee Phillips
After the relatively short but intense experience with the Grant-Lee Buffalo, American singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Grant-Lee Phillips started a solo career which has already led him to publish a significant number of records. Between some inevitable high and low, this artist has managed to achieve a respectable role in the modern music scene, although perhaps the charm and success of his initial band remains unattainable. Widdershins, which is Grant-Lee’s last record, is a solid album full of energy and positivity, that results extremely enjoyable to listen and wich also lets us appreciate the unique capacity of the artist to balance in an almost perfect and maniacal way both intimate and more sardonic moments.
Glen Hansard is one of those artists who have so much creativity that they can’t just remain anchored to a single form of expression and in fact, in his career, we’ve met him as a folk guitarist, singer, songwriter, and also actor. In his latest solo album, Between Two Shores, we see him engaged with a very wide range of musical styles: from classic rock to peaceful and intimate folk. Probably, when compared to his previous releases, the new LP shows a little less brilliance and freshness, and the songs are not always showing the same level of focus. There are however still many moments of excitment and passion, which correspond typically to the more rock-oriented moments of the album.
Singer-songwriter Afie Jurvanen, best known by his stage name Bahamas, released in early 2018 his new album, Earthtones, which is the fourth since his debut in 2009. This latest work by the young Canadian artist stands out for a brilliant heterogeneity of the pieces, ranging from indie folk to funky, and R&B. In Bahamas’ music there is a pervasive feeling of curiosity and it’s evident the clear will of the artist to push his music beyond the limits that were already known.
Sigulka is a rock band from Spain which has crafted a very unique style of music that may be summarized as a mix of hard rock and heavy metal but deeply rooted into the celtic tradition. Their sound is also very particular because of the composition of the line-up, which features a violinist as a stable member, and also for the extensive use of acoustic instruments. The new album from the band, Symbols, is a nice collection of accessible and generally enjoyable songs. Maybe the rhythms are a bit too slow and in the long run the songs tend to look too much similar, but there are still some interesting moments such as the song On Fire, which is one of the best tracks of the album.