Yesterday Hit Today

Folk is a four-letter word that's always in style.

If the folkier side of Seattle music rose to national prominence this year, we've got Fleet Foxes to thank for it. And if Fleet Foxes made #1 on the 2008 edition of Pitchfork's Top 50 Albums list for both the Sun Giant EP and their self-titled debut (not to mention #11 on Rolling Stone's), it's because, in the words of Pitchfork writer Joe Tangari, the band crafts "catchall Americana that takes a wide slice of our popular music's spectrum and pulls it through a reverse prism to create a gorgeous and focused sound of the band's own." In other words, it ain't freak folk, it's sure not anti-folk, and it's not traditional folk, either. This is something else altogether, but it's folky nonetheless. And if the "catchall Americana" Tangari cited is what the listening public is looking for (as top-10 sales at our indie record stores seem to suggest), Seattle could reasonably make an argument that folk is the new grunge, or something like that. But to say this trend began with Fleet Foxes' success would be false (akin to calling Nirvana the first grunge band), and it would also be wrong to assume that their success is an isolated incident. Many of the players within Seattle's current folky crop have already weathered at least two waves of the national spotlight thus far—the grunge wave and the Modest Mouse/Death Cab indie-rock wave. To name a few, there's Mark Pickerel (former drummer for Screaming Trees), Mat Brooke of Grand Archives and solo songstress Sera Cahoone (both Carissa's Wierd/Band of Horses alums), and Cave Singers guitarist Derek Fudesco (a former Murder City Devil). And amid those aforementioned waves, artists like Damien Jurado and Rosie Thomas quietly crafted incredible folk music, receiving little of the recognition their peers have. While Sub Pop's already staked its claim on the national scale (other recent folkier signees include Tiny Vipers and Death Vessel), the indie mega-label's renegade offshoot Hardly Art has also played a huge role in the genre's resurgence with artists like Arthur & Yu and the Pica Beats. Though Hardly Art publicist Nick Heliotis finds terms like "folk resurgence" problematic, he agrees that there's been one, and that Fleet Foxes' success "has been the big story as far as Seattle music in 2008 is concerned." Take Hardly Art band the Moondoggies, who incited a local mini-frenzy with its debut album Don't Be a Stranger. Derived from vintage '60s and '70s groups like The Band, the Moondoggies joyfully revisit the sounds of that era—and the Northwest has been eating it up like so many pot brownies. Same with Hardly Art's The Dutchess and the Duke, whose vintage '60s pop sound evokes artists like the Mamas and the Papas and the Rolling Stones. People who've heard these records may protest that these artists sound nothing alike—that claiming folk as their common thread is ridiculous. However, it's impossible not to notice these bands' shared influences: The Band, Dylan, Karen Dalton, Gram Parsons, Woody Guthrie, and so on. It may not be the sound itself that these bands have in common, but rather a shared appreciation of popular folk from the '60s and '70s—which allows them to create music informed by those sounds while retaining a distinct, 21st-century identity. Moondoggies guitarist and vocalist Kevin Murphy isn't convinced that this folk experimentalism is anything new, though. In fact, he says, while it may have been Fleet Foxes and company who drew attention to Seattle's folkier side, history has proven that folk and its rootsy subgenres never really fell out of favor. "Folk's timeless," Murphy says. "Somebody said something to me recently that I was annoyed with. They said, 'I heard harmonies are back in,' and I was like, 'That's one of the dumbest things I've heard. When did harmonies ever go out of style?'" Still, Murphy admits there's no question folk happens to be the popular sound right now. But why 2008? Jason Dobson, frontman of nine-person Seattle country outfit the Maldives, has a theory. "Folk music is for the people by the people," Dobson says. "And I think this year in particular, what with the political climate and the election, people want something more personal. People clearly want a change, and folk music has always been a reflection of that desire to change." sbrickner@seattleweekly.com

 
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