The New Folk Paradigm


I have a pronounced weakness for product-placement foxy-librarian coffeehouse folk: the quirky, buoyant female voices that endeavor to sell us Old Navy sweaters, sell us ultra-thin laptops, sell us Rhapsody subscriptions, sell us tear-jerking Grey’s Anatomy catharsis. Staten Island siren Ingrid Michaelson, whose tunes have peddled the first and last items on that list, now stands center stage at the Fillmore/Irving Plaza, clad in cat-eye glasses, a knit hat, and tight jeans she’d bought that very day from Forever 21 (Ingrid is quite the banterer, not to mention the pitchman), strumming tenderly and bellowing mightily through her attempt to sell something quite different: a Radiohead cover. “Creep,” specifically. Her voice is bright, quavering, evocative, stretching vowels to the breaking point and clipping consonants to the bone—razor-sharp T’s, peach-soft O’s. “You’re so very special,” she moans, the first two times that line comes around; building to the climactic final chorus, she opts for the surlier “You’re so fuckin‘ special”—take that, radio edit!—to rampant audience whoops.

We’re live at the Hotel Café Tour, a bizarre round-robin of mostly interchangeable sad-bastard singer-songwriters, trading off multiple three-song mini-sets and singing gaily along to each other’s saccharine choruses. A “Hey, isn’t this song on the Garden State soundtrack?” sort of affair, 90 percent women, 10 percent men atoning to their significant others for all the attention they’ve lavished on their NCAA brackets lo these past few weeks. Ingrid is the underdog, the Cinderella, the Davidson College of the product-placement foxy-librarian coffeehouse-folk milieu, unsigned and unloved until she dumped a bunch of tunes on MySpace, snagged the right pair of ears, and shortly thereafter could be heard on prime-time TV bellowing, “All we can do is keep breathing” as Sandra Oh hysterically ripped off her wedding dress. This crowd, too, loves her. Literally. “I love you, Ingrid!” one ebullient lass howls. “I’m sorry!”

Ingrid, too, can be very literal. Her other hit, “The Way I Am” (the Old Navy one), has a light upright-bass bounce, a bright, clean, snuggly, laundry-detergent sort of feeling, and begins thusly:

If you were falling

I would catch you

Tonight she also plays “The Hat,” her achy falsetto flourishes wrapped around nervously jangling acoustic guitars, voicing expository sentiments that could’ve been written—or just spoken, or maybe even merely thought—by a high-school sophomore, but delivered as though they were Gospel, as though nothing on earth could be more important:

I knitted you a hat of blue and gold

To keep your ears warm from the Binghamton cold

It was my first one

It was too small

It didn’t fit you at all

But you wore it just the same

But it goes bad!

So it’s Christmastime [Sleigh bells audible here]

It’s been three years

And someone else is knitting things for your ears

As has been noted recently in these pages, as the music industry burns, our future as listeners, viewers, and conspicuous consumers is tied up in young women named Ingrid, Feist, Cobie, Kimya, Leona, and Yael. (We’ll get to Yael in a second.) As apocalyptic visions of the future go, Ingrid’s really not so terrible: She has great, goofy crowd rapport, a just-us-girls casualness, clearly understanding that the key to success in the product-placement foxy-librarian coffeehouse-folk milieu is to not get too uppity, too confident, too comfortable. Be vulnerable. The best song on Girls and Boys, the record benefiting from all this attention, is entitled “Breakable,” and discusses the fragility of our hearts, our bodies, etc. Her most warmly received bit of crowd banter this evening regards her long-standing fear that she’ll die alone. But a lot of rapturous disciples in this crowd would have to die first for that to happen.

Yael Naim, bright and beaming and resplendent in a purple dress, is a slightly less neurotic vision, commanding her own sold-out crowd at the Bowery Ballroom a week earlier. Hers is a more exotic, sophisticated sound: Born in Paris, and an alumna of the Israeli Defense Forces, she can croon her sweet, moody, birdlike pop songs in English, French, or Hebrew, wielding lovingly rendered clusters of consonants even rougher than Ingrid’s. You know her from the commercial for the tiny-ass laptop. Yael’s clomping-piano number “New Soul” chirps along happily in the MacBook Air ad—”La la la la la la la la la la la la”—and, like the MacBook Air itself, the tune is wafer-thin, undeniably appealing, largely extraneous. Onstage, the night after the release of her self-titled debut, she is bubbly beyond belief, her English lyrics avoiding ennui and opting for plain ol’ restless boredom: “Far far, there’s this little girl/She was praying for something to happen to her,” cooed with the giddy air of someone to whom something big has happened.

I kept closing my eyes, furrowing my brow, and trying to magically transform her into Sade. Not quite. Yael’s backing band is loaded with skeezy-looking faux-jazz dudes—the Venn-diagram circles of “fretless-bass owners” and “douchebags,” if they do not perfectly align, are really, really close (like five-seconds-before-the-solar-eclipse close). But this approach still gives her a wider palette than her product-placement foxy-librarian coffeehouse-folk brethren; whereas Ingrid can sound like the Sundays, or Tracy Bonham, or (and this is odd) Terror Twilight–era Pavement, Yael can summon weirder and more worldly fare. She, too, has a jokey pop-zeitgeist cover tune: Britney Spears’s “Toxic,” done up slow, sultry, spy-intrigue style. Onstage, though, she breaks up the tune’s mock-seriousness by mischievously impersonating her bandmate’s goofy synth squiggles, mewling like a cat.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen someone as plainly thrilled to be onstage as Yael is. She revels in the Bowery Ballroom’s outcry of joy when she finally launches into “New Soul,” and maybe 20 minutes later, deciding that the encore she’d just done was insufficient, she drags her amused band through the song again, tacking on several additional “La la la la la la la la la la la la” choruses, clearly just improvising, unwilling to leave the stage, refusing to let this moment go. For all her moaning about knitting hats and dying alone, Ingrid too has that happy-to-be-here ebullience, and maybe that’s what resonates with artists like this, what accounts for their modest success and rampant marketability as the rest of the music world goes to shit. Cheer up, everyone. All we can do is keep buying.