Akron/Family and Mi and L'au | Live Review

The Memphis Flyer | Andria Lisle

Young musicians let their freak-folk flag fly.

Jan 20/06

A New Age

Over the last decade, indie rockers have used albums by Skip Spence and the 13th Floor Elevators as a barometer of hipness. An already mainstreamed Bob Dylan has become even more commonplace. Woody Guthrie was unearthed by Billy Bragg and Wilco, who cut the fawning -- but wonderful -- tribute Mermaid Avenue, while films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and A Mighty Wind threatened to hijack an entire movement. Folk music, it seems, has never gone out of style.

But no one predicted the arrival of so-called free folkies -- musicians like Devendra Banhart, who favors a full-on Manson beard, minor tunings, and murmured vocals, and elfin harpist Joanna Newsom. Both seemingly materialized from thin air to confound rock journalists with their psychedelic ramblings.

Critics have used Banhart's and Newsom's success, the highly acclaimed reemergence of genuine '60s folkie Vashti Bunyan, and the popularity of contemporary groups like Animal Collective and Iron and Wine as the signposts of a new movement, variously given monikers such as freak folk, free folk, and outsider folk.

Yet many of the musicians, including Akron/Family and Mi and L'au, who are playing the Hi-Tone Café this Monday, deny that any such faction exists.

Insider Michael Gira, whose Young God Records has released a number of recent folk records (including albums by Banhart, Akron/Family, Mi and L'au, and his own project, Angels of Light), insists that the artists on his label are entirely unique.

"I myself would never want to have anything to do with a 'scene' --especially one with as silly a name as 'freak folk' -- and I don't think Mi and L'au, Akron/Family, or Devendra would either," Gira maintains, adding that "Mi and L'au, in particular, don't seem to have much to do with folk per se. I see them more as making classic 'art songs.'"

"We never intended to sound like we fit into a scene," says Seth Olinsky, guitarist for Akron/Family. "It just happened that disparate people with different backgrounds ended up doing similar things. I don't think there's a school. We're all roughly the same age, so we happen to have similar influences. Musically, I spend more time ripping off Dylan and the Beatles. Why rip off our peers when we can rip off the masters?"

Listen to Akron/Family's latest, a split CD with Angels of Light, and you'll hear a cacophony of influences ranging from John Fahey to John Coltrane with snippets of Syd Barrett, the Carter Family, Slint, and Sonic Youth tossed in for good measure. The carefully arranged harmonies of "Awake" are disrupted by the math-rock guitar antics that open the raucous "Moment," while the sprawling "Dylan Pt. 2" features tenderly absurd vocals and a thundering chorus balanced with a delicate guitar riff and a full drum kit.

Mi and L'au's self-titled album, a sober blend of acoustic guitar, piano, strings, Mi's shimmering voice, and L'au's deep one, is a sharp contrast. The romantic duo --one part Finnish, one part French -- play classically driven melodies. Songs like "Older" and "Philosopher" are reminiscent of Nico or a less jazz-influenced Françoise Hardy, while L'au's clipped vocals and guitar skills suggest the late Nick Drake, one of the progenitors of England's '60s folk movement.

"We've spent the last five years isolated in Finland," Mi notes, "so if we belong to a scene, we're not aware of it. We make music for us, for each other. We've met some unique musicians along the way, but I don't see us as thrown into any genre."

Despite what the musicians themselves say, Louis Jay Meyers, executive director of the Memphis-based Folk Alliance, sees the current folk revival as "a natural, cyclical progression" that serves to reestablish the sound in a new marketplace. "For me," Meyers says, "it's what keeps folk music fresh."