By Mark Guarino
Folk music continues to be the mothership of musical styles. Continuing since the inaugural folk music revival of the early 1960’s, artists starting with Bob Dylan and continuing through Wilco and Sufjan Stevens have bellied up to its traditional instrumentation and story-song narratives only to turn them inside out, tweak them with modern day attitudes and electronics, and generally demonstrate that, despite its reputation as constricting and stubborn, folk music is perpetually elastic.
The revivals may change but they never disappear. In just the past few years, a new generation of new-folk revivalists has commanded enthusiastic attention for introducing something new to music that is generally considered very old. Bands such as Dr. Dog, Animal Collective and Antony & The Johnsons to songwriters such as Joanna Newsom and Iron & Wine, have gone beyond folk stereotypes to present music that instead reaches into the music’s soul, soaking up inspiration in its storybook metaphors and power of subtlety.
Add Bill Callahan and Devendra Banhart to the list. Later this month, both songwriters, from Austin and Los Angeles respectively, will arrive in Chicago within days of each other to play two separate shows, performing music that positioned on opposite ends of folk music’s long spectrum — the psychedelic regalia of the 1960’s and the sobering detachment of the 1990’s.
Callahan is hardly a new voice. For 13 years he has chosen to record as Smog, a nom de plume that also happens to be a nifty way to describe the hazy allure of his folk-based songs. While many of his albums play like sparse meditations, some featuring just voice and guitar, his recent album, “Woke On a Whaleheart” (Drag City), receives the energetic lift of a full band. Which helps since the backdrop summons the truly transfixing nature of these songs.
“When you are blind/you touch things for their shape/have faith in wordless knowledge,” he sings, opening the album on “From the Rivers to the Ocean,” a beauty that is gentle but luxurious. Violins and a piano follow his sleepy voice like lost puppies. Like Jay Farrar of Son Volt or Jason Molina of Magnolia Electric Co., Callahan — he records under his birth name now — is not one to shriek and plead. His stoic vocals better the songs through what they leave out. Like any of the folk ancients, Callahan is so adept at creating compelling images he doesn’t need to embellish his vocals to sell them. All he has to do is sing like he’s simply reporting they exist.
These are beautifully sly, seductive songs. “Diamond Dancer” opens with these lines — “she dancing so hard/she danced herself into a diamond” — and then, through a slapping beat and strutting violin, Callahan sets the mood until you realize the end of the song, his narrator is not just hypnotized, he is in a place far worse — “It’s time I gave the world my life,” he sings. “Starting tonight.”
“Whaleheart” goes on like that, working on surfaces stocked with Midwestern pleasantries — lyrics like “there’s sap in the trees if you tap ‘em/there’s blood on the seas if you map ‘em,” sound lifted from “Fargo” — but drip over the sides with black humor. This is also Callahan’s most conventional album, dutifully following up verses with choruses and, on “The Wheel,” a call-and-response interplay with himself in what is best described as campfire gospel. Cheery but also deeply rooted in mysteries, Callahan’s newest has plenty to unravel, but it’s a toe-tapper too.
Devendra Banhart can write a snappy tune, but he’s more inclined to soak it in reverb, add a backup chorus of stoned hippies and switch the lyrics to Spanish. Those are the quirks that have earned him the renown as king of the freak folkies. “Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon” (XL Recordings) is another jewel to that crown. Devendra’s music borrows from the stoner pomp of the Rolling Stones “Satanic Majesties” era, plus it has world beat inclinations. “Smokey” is a true journey, taking unexpected turns, making atypical musical references. To stick with it poses a challenge, but there are payoffs.
Banhart is a vocal trickster, crooning like Elvis, delicately singing over gauzy production, and in rare moments, delivering rock passion like an ace. “Smokey” is built for his vocal dexterity and musical ambition. On this album are Spanish ballads (“Cristobal”), streamlined rockers (“Tonada Yanomamista”), psychedelic atmosphere (“Seaside”), heavy orchestration (“Freely”) and even a slice of Jewish kitsch (“Shabop Shalom”), featuring one-liners like “I’m ever in a foul mood/I gotta see you in your Talmud.”
Banhart is convincing juggling all these moods and styles. But like a room lit with too much patchouli, “Smokey” does suffer from the burden of his 1960’s obsession. “Smokey” is clouded with that decade — During the eight minutes of “Seahorse,” Banhart hopscotches from Jethro Tull to Van Morrison’s “Moondance” to blues rock swagger transmitted straight from Jim Morrison’s grave.
Not surprising since his stage shows and visual package resurrects flower power for the present day. Too bad since the majority of “Smokey” demonstrates Banhart is beyond those references. As always, the test comes at the neck of an acoustic guitar. “Smokey” ends with “My Dearest Friend,” a cheerful acknowledgement of mortality. “I’m gonna die of loneliness — for sure,” Banhart strums, dancing on his own grave before he’s even in it.