What we have here is a trio of folkish releases (tri-folk-cta of releases?) that aren’t all that connected except by their vague (sometimes not so vague) folkiness. Well two of them came out on the same label but I’ll just ignore that connection for now. All are pretty great and add or develop a different dimension of “folk”—I used it a million times in the opening sentence, what’s one more gonna hurt.
Xzibit number A: Witch Choir by Fantastic Magic. Leave it to Nate Rulli over at Abandon Ship to be the man to hook me up with something I never knew existed and never knew I needed so badly. This tape flat out rules, murdering the competition with one fell swoop. These guys have an uncanny accuracy with words, this tape is fantastic, magical and sounds like the sweetest damn bunch of witches you ever heard. I’m reminded a bit of the Cherry Blossoms but where they jam (and jam unbelievably well) on zany hillbilly ground, Fantastic Magic have a lightly tripped out, free floating and totally bewitching vibe. And just like the Blossoms they are totally addicting. The tape runs through 10 tracks in 25 minutes so it’s not really worth singling specific ones cause they fly by so fast and, really how can you pick out highlights when the whole thing is a highlight. I’ll try though, at the end of the A-side there is a brilliant Morricone inspired spaghetti western breakdown, and throughout the rest of the tape you’ll hear dreamy forest lullabies (especially the album opener), lots of lo-fi lushness, dazzling, ear catching melody after melody after melody (and so on…) courtesy of voice, guitar, trumpet, and, um, everything else they play. I’m not fucking around here, you gotta hear this. I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve listened to it and its always new and great and with the melodic hooks continuously popping up in my mind and on my lips. I will say two things though; one, there is some pretty high pitched singing on here in spots which initially took a bit of getting used to, but it isn’t annoying or anything. The other is there is a free jam on the second side that goes on a bit too long but it’s still short anyway, so really not much to complain about actually. But no matter, go buy this before these guys are big stars and on Paw Tracks or something. Highly recommended. One of my favorite things all year. And it only costs 5 bucks postpaid! Small price to pay for an eternal smile on yr face. And word from Nate is that he hopes to have a Fantastic Magic LP out by the end of the year, so start drooling, I already have.
Next up, CJA/Smokehouse, which despite the slashing punctuation is in fact a 100% collabo. Don’t know Smokehouse at all but, I’ve heard a few things by CJA before. Anyhow, both guys sing, play guitar, organ and drums. Though it seems like they only do them at a time. Most tracks sound pretty minimal, like maybe voice with guitar accompaniment. This tape has a real nicely beat up lo-fi aesthetic, a tad warbly and fuzzy and warm. Opener “I Need Her” is a stand out cause the dude singing (CJA?) just sounds so tired and wrecked, slumped over a few beautifully simple guitar chords. Also “Vegemite Eggs on Toast” closes out the A-side with a lone guitar ringing out many a sweet, heart wrenching chord. Basically encompassing, in guitar chords, the misery of the dude who sang on the first track. No easy feat I must say. In between the two there is the incrementally more riotous “Let Her Go” which features some drumming in addition to guitar and vocals with a bit of an anguished, frustrated vibe. Maybe a sequel to “I Need Her”? There are also a couple almost interlude like tracks with organ and whatnot, which I guess add a bit of atmosphere but not that much else.
On the flipside, we’re met with a much more confident, bordering on bombastic strum on side opener “Sunshine Stream”. Things get unexpectedly noisy, and it’s actually rather cathartic even just for the guy (me) listening to it. That is something I’m really digging about this tape is the basic emotional connection it forges with the listener, in spite of (or maybe because of) such a limited palette. “In Bed” follows with a guitar/organ dirge, with the weird vibrating organ tone overtaking the much more mild mannered guitar progression. “Another Day, Another Beer” sees the voice that I think is CJA’s get back on the mic, this time with a much stronger guitar accompaniment which overpowers his vocal in some spots. There is a second guitar too, which is a welcome presence adding different aborted guitar solo-type deals that get occasionally spattered across the rest of the song. “A World Without Love” is another solo guitar instrumental, with a very angsty alternative vibe (didn’t I say that about a Buck Paco track too?). All in all a cool release, though the A-side is a bit spotty in places, there is more than enough good stuff to dive into here. Again, really dig the emotional presence that resonates in the majority of the tracks too.
Buds of May is the most traditionally “folk” of the three here. Turner Cody is a pretty prolific songwriter who has garnered rave reviews from Wooden Wand and Glenn Donaldson, who I heard know a thing or two about writing songs. As exhibited on excellent opener “Break for Boar”, (I’m all about the openers today) Cody shows his penchant for ambling about bouncy blues-inspired progressions and sings with a bit of swagger and confidence. Though he certainly knows how to sing, Cody definitely retains that everyman vibe in his voice that all the best vocalists have (Will Oldham, Bill Callahan, Bob Dylan etc.) “Lashes That Go Wide” reminds me of the more acoustic moments of Magnetic Fields. Cody gives a droll, dry delivery but manages to be incredibly tuneful as well. Tough to pull off, but he does so admirably. “Up Up High” has a catchy jaunt a la Pixies’ “Vamos” and some classic cowboy lead guitaring. Definitely a foot tapper. I always have a hard time writing about simple acoustic ditties such as these, but I really wish I was good at it because “The Casual Joke” is a killer. It’s one of those songs that just hits you and knocks you out. One of those, you hear for the first time and know it’s special and you’ll be damned if you don’t listen to it another hundred times. Everything comes together to absolute perfection. Cody’s voice winds through the lyrical lines wonderfully and the chord progression is a tearjerker. I feel like maybe the best thing I can about this album is there is nothing bad about it, nothing to criticize or nitpick. It’s just incredibly well written, well sung/performed, well paced (12 songs in a half hour). It’s just a bunch of great songs, with lyrics snaking around the chords united by the overarching melody. Also, I’m totally not doing justice to Cody’s lyrics in this review but I’ve never been a big fan of taking lyrics out of context and using them in reviews (though in a second, I’ll render that statement irrelevant, sorry) His lyrics are often very clever and always have an odd but fitting sort of structure and syntax. A unique voice to be sure. I will leave you, however, with a quote of Cody’s that I think sums him up pretty damn well: “An image is a prison, babe/and I ain’t got one”
Both Abandon Ship releases come packaged totally classy as usual, transparent color tapes and color inserts. Cheap too. Buds of May is Digitalis’s first release under the new Arts & Crafts guise, and it’s got a beautifully printed three-color arigato pack, very very nice and professionally pressed CD. Obviously, I’m in love with Fantastic Magic, but you can’t go wrong with any of these whatever way you go.