Free Shtick


Call it the “what it’s all about” factor. See, I’m digging this free-folk stuff as pure sound, but the movement’s unwritten manifesto is harder to grasp, and for me that’s always an impediment to buying into a scene wholeheartedly. Perhaps that’s why I literally don’t buy it (the f-folk scraps I have were all acquired by, erm, other means, shall we say). Just as well, maybe: Mapping this genre properly would entail a financial bloodbath, given its norm of incontinent productivity. Just check the intimidating discographic delta—cassettes, lathe-cut 7-inch singles, 3-inch CDs, side projects, and collaborations galore (see—that’s issued from a single group, New York–turned-Knoxville-based Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice, during their two years of existence. This season alone sees Wooden Wand’s solo debut and two re-releases of small-run vinyl-only albums (Xiao and Buck Dharma), while an all-new Vanishing Voice full length, The Flood, is due this month.

“Pure sound” assessment first: “Free folk” verges on a misnomer. As genre expert Jon Dale points out, it’s a highly recombinant style whose warp’n’weft includes threads of not just traditional music but West Coast acid rock, prog, free jazz, Dead C–style noise, musique concréte, and “outsider” minstrels such as Jandek. Xiao‘s best tracks, “Caribou Christ in the Great Void” and “Return of the Nose,” resemble nothing so much as the raga-rock trance and narcotic wah-wah torpor of “We Will Fall” by the Stooges, while Dharma‘s “Satya Sai Baba Scuppety Plays ‘Reverse Jam Band’ ” is a strange shimmer-slither of a keyboard étude, like Morton Subotnik turning into the Blob. If Vanishing Voice have a standard mode at all, it’s long pieces like Xiao‘s “Weird Wisteria Tangles Carrion Christ But Intends No Harm” (and yes, the track titles are another stumbling block to full-on fandom) or The Flood‘s 14-minute “Satya Sai Sweetback Plays ‘Oxblood Boots.’ ” Cantering cavalcades of barely integrated instrumentation (rustling bells, tunelessly parping woodwinds, Cale-like drones, listless percussion, thrumming steel-cable bass drones, and so forth), these tracks either dissipate into oxbow lakes of abstraction or gradually accumulate disparate jetsam into tripnotic juggernauts. Still, we’re not exactly talking “Scarborough Fair,” and the only truly folky aspect is a slight bias toward sounds of acoustic provenance.

But what’s it all about, Alfie? I fear that Wand (real name, James Toth) hits the nail on the head with his self-description as “spiritual dilettante.” The f-folk genre gestures at the shamanic and visionary, but in this easygoing way that feels not so much syncretic as plain eclectic. Isn’t the spiritual path actually hard work, though, a discipline? When Vanishing Voice overtly invoke the transcendental, with the group’s intermittent female vocalist Satya Sai Baba Scuppety ululating lines like “I sought the truth so long” in her piercingly pure-toned voice, the mystical-me vibe verges on schlock. In Dharma‘s “Wicked World,” Toth mutters like a bum/seer whose desolation-row jeremiad gets ignored by passersby. His solo album exhibits a similar penchant for parable and prophecy (Toth’s a Scripture fan) but the accompaniment is pared-back minstrelsy elevated by an exquisite attentiveness to the creak-glistened textures of semi-acoustic guitar. “Spiritual Inmate” distills an f-folk tendency that can be traced back to its ancestor, the Beat movement: condescension toward the benighted square, who’s “passing so much beauty/passing on so much beauty” because he’s, like, imprisoned by being “obsessed with protection.”

It’s shtick, really, this idea of seeing clearly because you’re outside society, but then so are other “performative enactments of the authentic” like grime, so nothing wrong with that. The same element of theater can be seen in a group regarded by many f-folks as an illustrious ancestor, Comus, whose 1971 album First Utterance has just been reissued in a double CD that scoops up everything else the U.K. outfit recorded in its brief existence. That Bowie was a Comus supporter seems especially revealing. This isn’t traditional British music in the Martin Carthy sense (unadorned and faithful) but closer to Jethro Tull: ripe, rustic-flavored rock with frenetic hand-percussion à la Tyrannosaurus Rex and orchestrated elements redolent of Italo-horror soundtrack proggers Goblin. Frolicking woodwinds and Roger Wooton’s vibrato-rattling cackle conjure an indeterminately pre-industrial Albion, all gibbets and gargoyles, merlins and maypoles and maidenheads. A tale of deflowering and murder, “Drip Drip” is all the more creepy for the grotesque tenderness with which Wooton delivers lines like “your lovely body soon caked with mud/as I carry you to your grave/my arms, your hearse” (the last line borrowed by black-metal outfit Opeth for an album title). In “Song to Comus” itself, his hideously capering voice impersonates a Pan-like satyr whose piping music lures “an enchanted damsel” to his forest lair of depravity. First Utterance courts absurdity, but like a great horror movie (The Wickerman would be the apposite reference) it draws you in completely. Wooton brings a conviction to his roles as warlock/sprite/all-purpose bucolic bogeyman that takes it beyond playacting. Whereas with Wooden Wand there’s still a faint aura of make-believe, even put-on, such that, as absorbing as the sonix often are, I still don’t . . . quite . . . buy it.