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Psych-Folk Confidential

Exclaim | by Kevin Hainey

Banhart humbly evokes the most accessible epitome of modern psych-folk with his symbolic, poetic lyrics and wide breadth of acoustic guitar patterns

After being drilled, chilled and head-ached by the droves of dance-punk, post-punk and no-wave bands that have been demanding everyone gyrate, jiggle and vogue about indie hangouts, it sure feels refreshing to rest your danced-out legs in the lotus position and immerse your ears, heart and soul in the inviting, unassuming and ultimately soothing sounds of psychedelic folk that are pouring out of whittled notches all over America.

In fact, when it comes to spotting psych-folk acts on the rise, what at first seems to be a few isolated saplings (artists and groups like Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective, the Skygreen Leopards, Charalambides and Vetiver) on closer inspection reveal themselves to be part and parcel of a densely populated forest of earthy creativity that dates back to long before the very beginnings of modern, album-based musical expression (arguably the Beatles’ 1966 folk-tinged Rubber Soul), to the times of traditional folk music, spiritual chants, autumnal hymns, witty limericks and Elizabethan poetry. To quote Spinal Tap’s folk-rock parody, "Stonehenge," this music stems from a time "hundreds of years before the dawn of history."

One need only look deeply enough into psych-folk’s enamoured light to begin finding it lurking in the background of so much popular music. For instance, would there ever have been songs like "Norwegian Wood," "Space Oddity" or "Loser" if the artists who conceived them hadn’t devised a relevant link between psychedelically enhanced sounds and the bare-bones essence of a man singing and strumming an acoustic guitar? In the right induced state, it’s the ultimate mix: the sonic representation of what Charalambides’ Tom Carter so precisely calls "some encompassing All" combined with the puritanical humanism of the folk performance.

But before your mind becomes blown, let us unfurl the many layers of the psych-folk onion. To do this one need only adorn their thickest bejewelled cloak and willingly traipse back through the ages with sceptre clenched in hand. But be forewarned: ‘tis an oft-harrowing journey thou dost embark upon.

The outer fringes of today’s psych-folk forest have been hinted at for nigh an indie-rock decade by high-minded songwriters and their respective nom de plumes; artists such as Will Oldham, Bill Callahan (Smog), Mirah, Aaron Riches (Royal City) and, most recently, Samuel Beam (Iron & Wine) have tread similar courses to today’s wayfaring strangers, but with one major difference: they place more emphasis on folk’s bluegrass roots than the more psychedelic version that’s become second nature to so many current songwriters.

If a single centre to psych-folk’s resurgence can be embodied, it would have to be in the young and prodigious critical darling Devendra Banhart. Possessing a dependable prowess for composing naturally catchy and charming mystical ditties perfectly suited for his quirky vocal warbles, Banhart humbly evokes the most accessible epitome of modern psych-folk with his symbolic, poetic lyrics and wide breadth of acoustic guitar patterns.

As the now-legendary story goes, Banhart and his shoddily recorded early works were couch surfing around San Francisco (he graduated from the city’s Art Institute) before being discovered and brought into the open by possibly his greatest admirer, Michael Gira (ex of New York dirge-rockers Swans and currently of like-minded art-folk project Angels of Light). Gira’s Young God label has since released Banhart’s albums, the latest of which, Rejoicing In The Hands, has gained Banhart more attention and critical fawning than ever, as well as a respectable following that will surely grow when Rejoicing’s companion album, Nino Rojo, drops this September. Banhart describes the pair’s relation in symbolic terms that exemplify the outer plains he’s coming from. "Nino Rojo is the child. It means Red Sun / Son. Rejoicing In The Hands of The Golden Empress is the mother. The Golden Empress is the sun."

Banhart says his initial reaction to being noticed and admired was "What the fuck? Wowed," which is to say he didn’t really expect it and was rather shocked. In fact, Banhart has gained something of a reputation for being humble, and though his thick beard and long hair suggest he may have crossed a few deserts and valleys, he’s only 23 years old, which makes him quite suitable as a would-be psych-folk poster boy.

Directly behind Banhart’s pied piper are a clutch of like-minded and accessible West coast psych-folk artists, most notably 22-year-old Nevada City violinist and songwriter Joanna Newsom, whose Drag City debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, has already won her attention; San Francisco’s Vetiver, a group set around Andy Cabic that counts Banhart as a member and released their self-titled debut earlier this year on DiCristina; and dramatic West coast duo Faun Fables (also on Drag City), who precede Banhart, having formed around the turn of the century.

Music is no stranger to the forming of communities through similarities in creative style, so it’s no coincidence that Banhart, Newsom and Vetiver toured the U.S. this year. "The tour came about because all of us are friends and knew that if we had to be out touring, we’d enjoy it more if we were playing with one another," says Cabic, who also plays bass for dub-rockers Tussle. "I’m not sure what aspects of a vision we all share, musical or otherwise, but we all love and respect one another and the songs we make."

Cabic sites the spirits of longing and reverence as those he aspires to capture in his music, and they’re certainly feelings anyone who gets frustrated by the bustle of modern life can identify with. In fact, the old-world, purist sensibility of psych-folk could very well be a natural artistic reaction to both the technologically enhanced direction the modern world has embarked upon, as well as a backlash against music’s recent widespread fascination with computer-generated sound and beats. As a peaceful reaction to the world’s ongoing turmoil, psych-folk couldn’t have come about at a more appropriate time, as political tensions rise and the future becomes ever more uncertain.

The living proof that modern psych-folk has already spread across America’s West coast was recently made apparent by a compilation Banhart was invited to curate by Arthur magazine. The Golden Apples of the Sun is limited to 1000 copies and provides samplings of 20 young and diverse psych-folk artists, many of which have already released full-length albums.

But this warm, earthy acoustic sound is in no way specific to the West coast. Emerging from the still-blazing embers of Brooklyn, New York’s recently stoked hotbed of exploratory groups comes a trio of key psych-folkies: White Magic, Samara Lubelski and Animal Collective.

White Magic are a three-piece that revolves around the enchanting voice and piano playing of Qui*x*otic member Mira Billotte, and whose debut EP, Through the Sun Door, recently dropped on the psych-folk lovin’ Drag City. Samara Lubelski, on the other hand, hasn’t even released an album yet, but has had her fingers in a few worthy pies — she was a member of sadly forgotten ‘90s Krautrock revivalists Metabolismus, has played violin for the Sonora Pine and God Is My Co-Pilot, joined the choir on the Hidden Camera’s The Smell of Our Own, worked as engineer for Black Dice and Oneida, and appeared on United Bamboo’s They Keep Me Smiling compilation along with White Magic and Animal Collective. Lubelski’s debut album, The Fleeting Skies, doesn’t have a release date yet, but you can get a teasing taste of its mystical arrangements at buzz label the Social Registry’s website, www.thesocialregistry.com.

Animal Collective can’t be as easily pegged as a psych-folk act, but their latest and finest release, Sung Tongs (fat-cat), practically bursts with gleeful harmonies, pristine acoustics and swirling production. If you can imagine romping about an idyllic glen located within your fondest childhood memory, you’ll adore Sung Tongs.

"Pop and psych and folk for me are timeless things and not so much decade-long sorts of things," explains Collective co-founder Panda Bear. "Pop is like dessert and folk is like potatoes and psych is maybe salad, but that one’s harder. Psych to me really is just an organic movement. But all of those types of music or expression or whatever, I think, are more than a passing fancy."

Animal Collective may be more accurately compared to the perpetually changing exploratory ideals of fellow Brooklyn bands and friends like Gang Gang Dance and Black Dice, or soaring lo-fi experimentalists such as the Microphones and the Danielson Famile, but there’s certainly an earthy element fertilising their growth that makes them peers with psych-folks.

"I feel close with people long ago jamming around fires and dancing and getting together to celebrate or talk or just have fun for no reason, and to play music or listen to it being played," says Panda Bear, whose almost tribal rendering brings to mind the recordings of another like-minded Collective.

Co-founded by Donovan Quinn and Loren Chasse, the Jewelled Antler Collective serves as a heading for a number of interrelated projects that heavily emphasise the use of field recording in their music. Ongoing collaborations like Thuja, the Blithe Sons, Franciscan Hobbies, Dead Raven Choir and the Birdtree have set forth to capture the music of our living earth and accompany it with lightly strummed improvisations that are never imposing and always atmospheric. Over the past two or three years, the Jewelled Antler label has self-released and designed over 35 albums and CDRs, and they’re beginning to be picked up on underground indie labels all over the world.

Of this slew of projects, Quinn’s collaboration with recurring Antler member Glenn Donaldson called the Skygreen Leopards, is the most tuneful, accessible and readily available, particularly their third album (and first to be released by a proper label, Florida’s Soft Abuse), One Thousand Bird Ceremony. A wistful and charming collection, Ceremony blissfully sums up the Jewelled Antler agenda — soothing acoustic freedom that could have been recorded in the heart of an enchanted forest.

"When you record in a studio, you sometimes have to manufacture the mood," says Donaldson. "When you record outdoors it’s hard not to get inspired. It’s humbling, standing on a cliff staring at the fading sunlight. The songs come pouring out and even if you don’t like the recording, at least you had a good day outdoors."

But as earth-loving and outdoorsy as the Jewelled Antlers are, they haven’t felt the need to completely reject the modern world. "We make use of old and new ideas, recording on reel-to-reel tape machines and shitty cassette decks, using brand new mini-discs to record 100-year-old acoustic instruments, banging rocks together and mixing that in high-tech sound programs… The media and methods aren’t that important," says Donaldson. "The creative spark is what we’re after and somehow you end up expressing who you are. I guess that’s the ‘naturalistic’ part, the flawed, mysterious, fucked-up human element. Perhaps this is what ‘folk’ music is all about."

So if folk music came from man’s union with the earth, does it mean psych-folk came from man’s union with hallucinogens? Not necessarily — behind all of the stereotypical misrepresentations of ‘60s hippy culture (acid, tie-dye and orgies) there was a deeply spiritual consciousness spreading across modern thought faster than marijuana smoke blanketing a be-in. And if one man were to be credited with first combining a spiritual depth to the traditional folk aesthetic, it would be steel-string acoustic guitar virtuoso John Fahey.

Fahey’s earliest recordings date back to 1959 and he paved the way for similar ‘60s solo guitar innovators such as Leo Kottke, Robbie Basho and Sandy Bull. Fahey’s flawless playing and infinitely deep compositional style still echo within many of today’s guitar pickers (most notably Montreal virtuoso Harris Newman) and served as the bare-bones blueprint for Britain’s booming psych-folk movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

But 1965 was the year a combination of rock’s psychedelic consciousness and folk’s peace-loving awareness was popularised through two key artists, both heavily inspired by Bob Dylan.

Though it wasn’t until the following year that this Los Angeles set would take their psychedelic leanings to the forefront on an album called Fifth Dimension, the Byrds nevertheless burst onto 1965’s thriving rock scene with a string of hits that adapted folk songs by the likes of Dylan and Pete Seeger into jangling modern-day standards. By 1968’s masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo the Byrds had drastically changed their direction from folk-rock to country-rock (inspiring another genre to come), but over the course of their first five albums, the synthesis of the Byrds (then led by key songwriters David Crosby and Roger McGuinn) gave voice to a breezy feeling that was quickly sweeping America’s West coast.

Likewise in Glasgow, Scotland, the young flower child that began his career being touted as the "next Bob Dylan" and was openly mocked by intellectuals and artists the world over (including Dylan himself, as witnessed in D.A. Pennebaker’s landmark documentary, Don’t Look Back) issued his first single in 1965 and eventually gave psych-folk a smiling, elfin face with which to be identified. The man was Donovan and the single was "Catch the Wind," and though his creative spark didn’t outshine the end of the ‘60s, Donovan left behind no less than seven albums of varying quality (the best of which is 1968’s ambitious The Hurdy Gurdy Man) and a slew of catchy hit singles to be remembered by.

The relaxed yet informed flightiness of the Byrds and Donovan’s dippy essence quickly spread as songwriters from both sides of the Atlantic took up the slack. Though none ever achieved the commercial impact of either Donovan or the Byrds, admired outsiders such as Richard & Mimi Farina, Dino Valente, Nick Drake, Tim Buckley and Karen Dalton have all stood the test of time and won over modern-day audiences.

And it wasn’t long before something else came to sprout out the fields of psych-folk. Bands that would prove as precursors to the progressive rock sound that exploded at the end of the decade were getting attention, bands that combined a fetish for ancient folk traditions with more rock-based ideals, bands like Strawbs, Jethro Tull, Lindisfarne, the Incredible String Band and Steeleye Span. And though most of these groups had split up, fizzled into obscurity or changed musical directions by the mid-‘70s, they nevertheless collectively formed an intriguing musical movement that is only now being given its proper due through homage.

And so we are brought deeper still into modern psych-folk’s sound-forest, where we roam past all the accessible songsmiths and pop structures to seek out the inner recesses of psychedelic folk’s most forbidding modern caverns. What dwells here is not music for the faint of heart. It is for those who appreciate dynamic tension, relish in the expression of the mystic unknown and possess very respectable attention spans. Bewarest thee, humble listener, for you have reached the psych-folk underground.

Foremost on this front would be Six Organs of Admittance, a project fronted and usually specifically featuring the raga-like, droning acoustic guitar work and breathed, often wordless, vocals of North Californian Ben Chasny. Though there are different variations within his particular realms (the long, patient workouts of For Octavio Paz; the almost-songs of Compathia) Chasny tends to stick to the bleak, hallucinatory tones that have rendered him such an intriguing entity. Of the six or seven albums he’s released in as many years (most of which are available on the Holy Mountain label), 2002’s Dark Noontide is the safest starting point for wrapping oneself up in this enigmatic figure.

Though they’ve been around in one inception or another for roughly 13 years, it’s only nowadays that Houston, Texas duo Charalambides are receiving the credit and recognition they deserve. Previously spouses, Tom and Christina Carter have occasionally enlisted a third party to participate in performing their haunted laments, which have evolved from wall-of-sound Flying Saucer Attack territory to what Tom himself pegs as "extremely stretched out electric folk music." The sparse combination of Christina’s soaring, trance-like vocals and Tom’s restrainedly plucked electric guitar make their often endurance-length compositions (best heard on their latest offering, Joy Shapes, and the reissued Unknown Spin, both on Kranky) harrowing journeys akin to that of an out-of-body experience on a fog-drenched night. (Quite the contrast considering Charalambides means "a joyous light.") But whether you find Charalambides comforting or frightening is all in how you take their nearly ritualistic improvisations.

"I like to tap into whatever it is I tap into without trying to interpret what it is, since everyone is going to interpret my and our playing in their own way anyhow," says Tom. "Strangely I’m less comfortable now than I was a few years ago with the idea of our music being ‘spiritual’ — I think the term is too loaded perhaps. Ideally I want to be submerged in the sound and at times I guess that does seem spiritual in some vague sense. But I’ve given up on trying to figure out what it is that’s coming across, or where it comes from."

Even further out are a host of more blatantly freaky free-folk improvisers. These roaming troupes mostly self-release their albums as vinyl-only or CDR collectables for truly devoted psychedelic aficionados, but as their names appear in more hipster magazines and the general interest level rises, CDs and reissues are slowly popping up with their intriguing names on them. Mysterious, unbridled groups like the Tower Recordings, Vibracathedral Orchestra, Jackie-O Motherfucker, the Sunburned Hand of the Man and Toronto’s own Gastric Female Reflex have happily thrown convention and accessibility to the four winds to explore extreme and improvised music fields through an earthy folk route that likens them to the psych-folk creators and innovators of the past.

So if you’re fed up with modern life and its various musical movements, why not pick up that battered acoustic guitar and escape into the depths of the psych-folk forest? It’s a peaceful place with enough roots to dig for a dozen breezy summers.

©2014 | YOUNG GOD RECORDS, LLC