[Sunday Best; 2006]
Folk rock compilations have been sprouting like dandelions in recent months, as various labels have tried to get their arms around the ongoing profusion of new and reissued folk-related material. Complicating matters is the fact that the current international folk revival is less a unified movement than a series of smaller, overlapping sub-movements that might include any variety of American Primitive guitarists, free-form avant-folk collectives, ramshackle campfire pop, medieval-tinged electronica, or wayfaring acoustic singer-songwriters. Predictably, the general upshot has been that a large number of wildly disparate acts have frequently been lumped together under the same banner despite sharing little or nothing in common.
The latest collection to attempt to make sense of it all is Folk Off!, a 2xCD set from UK label Sunday Best. Dubious pun notwithstanding, the album's title is intended rather literally. The compilation is cheekily packaged as a competitive folk-off, with North America and the British Isles each getting one full disc to prove their supremacy, ignoring for the moment the enormous musical debts the two regions owe to one another. For the occasion, Sunday Best's curator Rob Da Bank has used a broad and imprecise definition of the term folk, casting a perimeter wide enough to corral such decidedly borderline folkies as Micah P. Hinson, Acid Casuals, and Magnétophone. Unfortunately, the set also chooses to ignore the massive free/drone/psych wing of contemporary folk almost entirely, instead focusing an unflattering degree of attention on sleepy-eyed acoustic pop and tepid bedroom electronica.
Fortified by familiar, previously-released tracks like Sufjan Stevens' "Decatur, Or, a Round of Applause for Your Stepmother" and Animal Collective's "Kids on Holiday", the North American half of Folk Off! is its most uniformly satisfying. If you want to get pedantic about it, however, few of these tracks genuinely owe much of anything to American folk tradition. To domestic ears, Hinson's opening "Yard of Blonde Girls" might skew more closely to standard alt-country, while Baby Dee's luminous "Morning Holds a Star" appears as a mystical sort of space cabaret. Philadelphia's Espers prove the exception to the rule, and their reverent take on the traditional "Rosemary Lane" sounds just as handsome in this mixed company as it did on their 2005 The Weed Tree EP.
The selection criteria gets even more lax and confusing on the album's British Isles side, which ranges from the strictly traditionalist (Deep Elem's "Lost in the Woods') to the not-identifiably-folk-whatsoever (Same Actor's "Nothing Yet"). Of course, such genre distinctions wouldn't matter much if the mix were consistently entertaining. Vashti Bunyan's "Here Before" and Song of Green Pheasants' "Nightfall" provide a pair of dusky highlights, but too many of the remaining soporific tracks combine into a lukewarm, treacly mush. James Yorkston & Reporter's "Woozy With Cider" is a meandering bit of digital spoken-word that brings any momentum to a crashing halt, while the inclusion of Acid Casuals' neo-sock-hop ditty "Bowl Me Over" just seems inexplicable, unless the American Graffiti soundtrack is now considered some kind of folk relic.
In the liner notes, Pete Paphides credits some of the current folk revival to the music's easy portability, a point that seems somewhat ironic since it appears that many of the artists on this collection did all of their recording home alone in their bedrooms. By omitting such significant (and adventurous) folk-inspired voices as Ben Chasny, Richard Youngs, Josephine Foster, Charalambides, Matt Valentine, Vibracathedral Orchestra, etc. Folk Off! is woefully incomplete as a primer on the contemporary folk scene, and thereby fails to adequately illustrate the extraordinary artistic value our shared folkloric traditions might have for tomorrow's more enlightened musicians and listeners.
-Matthew Murphy, August 28, 2006