Banhart, Swans redo meaning of ‘folk’

The Phoenix by JOSEPH KILLE

Devendra Banhart, Niño Rojo

What is folk music? Perhaps the first thing that wanders into your mind is the image of your parents and a bunch of their friends 30 or 40 years ago sitting around a campfire singing “We Shall Overcome” to nobody in particular. Then your mind wanders to NPR and the faux Irish/Scottish/Whatever ballads that the hipper dentists let blast in their waiting rooms. And don’t get me started on Pete Seeger.

The term “modern folk” has come to be a blanket term for crappy music played by people with acoustic guitars and a pair of Birkenstocks. And worst of all, it’s not a derivative of the original recorded examples of folk music we have from the 1930s, or even an adaptation of music notated before recording equipment, but instead a trickle-down from the first major mass reinterpretation of American music, the folk revival of the 1960s.

Of course there’s good folk music as well. But it’s rarer than a steel penny, and any artist with an ounce of integrity is hesitant to call it “folk” because of the stigma that comes with the term — precisely the reason I was surprised to receive not one, but two self-proclaimed folk albums in the mail this past week: Devendra Banhart’s “Niño Rojo” and the Black Swans’ “Who Will Walk in the Darkness with You?”

Devendra Banhart should get to call his music folk based on his bio alone. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice to say he’s a wanderer, a poet, a dropout, etc. etc, everything you want your sensitive lover-boy with a nylon-stringed guitar to be. While his music is sensitive, and really pretty to listen to, there’s also a strange and playful undercurrent of weird that pulls on his lyrics. All the tracks on the album are strong, the particular standouts being “An Island,” “Sister,” and “At the Hop,” which all share the playfulness of a child and the mysterious voice of an older man without ever being contradictory or unpleasant.

I like all the tracks on “Niño Rojo,” but my favorite has to be a song called “Little Yellow Spider.” In it Banhart sings about animals, the best line being “Hey there little sexy pig you mated with a man/ and now you’ve got a little kid with hooves instead of hands.” It’s this very sensibility that pushes Banhart out of any kind of musical tradition and sets him out on his own, creating lovely, bizarre music that can be appreciated only in reference to itself.

As much as Devendra dives into the good humor of his music, the Black Swans find the dirge and morass of theirs, setting dark arrangements to lead singer/songwriter Jerry DiCicca’s even darker lyrics and early 1980s Leonard Cohen-style of delivery. They don’t make any pretense of “Who Will Walk in Darkness with You?” being a feel-good album, and if you can approach it with that in mind, it doesn’t drag you down as much as it might. The instrumentation is appropriate and never overbearing. The album’s eponymous opening track is a bit hard to take by minute three, but those that follow lighten up a bit and let Dicca’s Robert Creely-esque lyrics shine through. It’s a great album for when you’re in one of “those” moods.

But are either of these albums really folk? I guess in the same way that punk is dead, and even the original blues weren’t really the “blues,” this music isn’t folk. But I wouldn’t mind it if it was. Seriously, I’d much rather hear this while waiting to get my wisdom teeth pulled than any album by the Kingston Trio.