new folk same as the old folk
by Sean
Please note: MP3s are only kept online for a short time, and if this entry is from more than a couple of weeks ago, the music probably won't be available to download any more.


Espers - "Dead Queen". For the past year or two, Espers were my "new folk" punching bag. I thought that their recordings epitomised the genre at its worst and when I saw them perform with a turgid Devendra Banhart in Edinburgh, it inspired an "enormous indie folk rant", bemoaning the state of the genre. I wrote: [Espers would] be better off playing Fairport Convention covers. "Psych"-folk? Give me a fucking break. It's not even heavy enough to be stoner folk. It's just stoned folk, folk about to fall asleep, folk that doesn't give a fuck cos it finds anything funny.

Okay so imagine my surprise, imagine the egg on my face when Espers' new album - it's called Espers II and it's out on Drag City in May (not March), - turns out to be fantastic. I don't just mean a sort of "hey, this is pretty good"; Espers II is a thrilling record, affecting and beautiful, and one of the best folk albums of the past decade and a half.

It's a revivalist work, certainly - much closer to Fairport Convention or Pentangle than it is to Josephine Foster and Sufjan Stevens, - but whereas artists like Alasdair Roberts try to tread in the same footprints, bringing the listener back to the dusty green and brown, Espers II feels like a refurbishing of those folk tropes. Chord patterns and folksong adorned with a twenty-first century glitter and drone.

"Dead Queen" is the album's opening, and finest track. There's this recurring downward bit, every four or eight bars, more and more prominent as the song goes on - and every time it happens I feel like another layer of enchantment is falling over me; a glamour as I get more and more ensconsced in the song. It starts with the modest and expected instruments: acoustic guitar, tambourine, cello, organ. But before long there's a sundrenched electric guitar and the smell of ozone; of a fresh lightning strike. There's recorder and a keyboard that sizzles like an eel. There's all this stuff, enchantment after enchantment, Meg Baird accompanying herself to gorgeous effect, but by the end you realise you've not been transported to some wooded fairy dell - you're right where you are, here in the real world with straight grey streets out your window. But there's a trembling in the air, a dance in the sunlight, a beat in your chest, and wonder in the walls.

[Espers are on tour.]


Nalle - "Ravens". Espers are from Philly. So what about here, in Europe, where this folk music is supposed to run in the rivers? What are we up to?

Nalle is a trio from Glasgow - a man who plays stringed and windy things, a woman who plays viola, and another who sings in a Newsom-like and billy-goat voice, jingling bells and stamping feet. Nalle's members are all involved in the Glasgow avant-garde/"free folk" community and this shows on their recordings - there's an eerie edge to their work, black mountains in the distance, strange birds. Both Nalle and Scatter can sometimes be a bit too diffuse, but other times there is something fierce and fragile in their work. A feeling rare and potent.

"Ravens" is a song that sounds like decay, like drooping wet branches and sudden flutters of wings. It might snap at you. It might feel like a tongue, unexpected on your face. Like falling into snow and cutting your hands. Or maybe like winter at its weakest point - at that moment when the season clings to landscape and to spirits, claws entrenched, slowly receding... leaving something tender in its wake. Tender and breathing.



Too bad about the Bloggies. Thank you to all those who voted, and to the other nominees.

I still cannot get over the response to our (very brief) fundraising drive. Thank you so much. As I said, we will be in touch about gifts ASAP; we had expected to have a week or two! :)

Posted by Sean at March 14, 2006 3:00 AM

Hi Sean,

Espers II does sound great. Like you I got turned off by the wave of 'new folk' but now it really does seem to be defining itself nicely.

Thanks, Tim

Posted by Tim Young at March 14, 2006 7:32 AM

Is it wrong of me to hear bits of Bjork in Nalle? Am I going to hell?

That Espers track is very impressive.

Posted by Tuwa at March 14, 2006 9:40 AM

Wonderful song by the Espers. They played it when I saw them play at the Fels Planetarium here in Philadelphia. As you can imagine, it was quite a good venue in which to see them, stoned or not.

Posted by Michael at March 14, 2006 5:06 PM

Man, I have to join the choir on this Espers track. Simply gorgeous, much more so than I ever expected. Just the right little bit of grit around the edges too. I'm barely halfway through and I already want to go lay down in the grass somewhere.

Posted by chris at March 14, 2006 8:50 PM

They were surprisingly good live, but as an opening band, not ideal. Sleepy-time, indeed.

Posted by eric at March 15, 2006 2:35 PM

Beautiful writing in this post. I love the first song, I've been thinking about it all day, actually. The lightning and the ozone smell are so accurate. The second song I probably won't listen to again, but I can't get over how good your writing is here. The feeling of falling into snow and cutting your hands is so brutally perfect, I really don't know how you came up with that.

Posted by Karin at March 16, 2006 4:21 AM

Just saw Espers open for Stereolab. They had brief moments of Spacemen-3-combined-with-Nico greatness, but for the most part they played boring stoned folk. Your first instinct was right. Their album artwork is freaking awesome, though.

Posted by bryan at March 17, 2006 2:57 PM

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Sean Michaels is the founder of Said the Gramophone. He is a writer, critic and author of the theremin novel Us Conductors. Follow him on Twitter or reach him by email here. Click here to browse his posts.

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