Folk

Mount The Air (CD)

The Unthanks’ first album in four years shows them more musically ambitious than ever, taking on traditions from Spain, India, Blue Note and Trip-Hop. Mount The Air is the work of an act who still believes in the value of the album as an art form.

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Primrose Green (CD)

Chicago-based folkster Ryley Walker has taken a leap from the primitive to the profound in his sophomore album. Primrose Green weighs in with less hero worship homage to the likes of Fahey, Basho, and Jansch in favor of a more spontaneous original flighty groove anchored by a truly savvy and tight band. The playful finger picking of the titular track, “Primrose Green,” bounces along piano keys as Walker’s soulful vocals corral the melodies into an elaborate '60s folk garden. Much of the work of the record is left to the seemingly reborn vocal style of the 25-year old singer/songwriter. When infused with the fuzzed guitar of Brian Sulpizio on “Sweet Satisfaction” Walker ably wails like a man experiencing a pain way beyond his years. On “All Kinds of You” drummer Frank Rosaly leads the band in a jazzy jam session where the poetry of Walker’s words remain hidden in the crests and valleys of every beat. The only place on the record where Ryley’s voice may have to take the backseat is the elegant piano work of Ben Boye. That being said the interplay of Walker’s guitar and Boye’s keys on “Love Can Be Cruel” is a showstopper. Walker’s band sound rounds out with some heartbreaking string work led by Fred Lonberg-Holm and Whitney Johnson. Primrose Green is a lush charming '60s folk record made by excited musicians in 2015. Ryley Walker, being the most excited and exciting of the bunch.

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Vestiges & Claws (CD)

It’s tough to pin down just what makes Jose Gonzalez’s music so special. On one hand, the Swedish troubadour writes simple songs that don’t stray far from a template, drawing inspiration from Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkle and Latin folk. On the other hand, the songs on Vestiges & Claws, his third solo album, possess a paralyzing beauty, their lyrics a clarity that is all too rare in a time when folk music seems to be more about looking like you were born in 1918 and festival-style chanting. Lyrically, Gonzalez deals in existential themes and inward thoughts. “Stories We Build, Stories We Tell” seems to be about a fight, but his line “sitting in silence, wondering what to do” sums up the feeling, capturing a rare in-between state while some snarling acoustic solos untie a homespun groove. Musically, Gonzalez still can pack hidden hooks into these songs the same way he did on a song like “Heartbeats,” but he’s boosted them ever-so-slightly, adding swelling choral harmonies to the curative “Let It Carry You,” for instance, or tracing private heartache with a beatific flute while he sings “Why didn’t I see the forest on fire behind the trees?” on the stunning track “The Forest.” Vestiges & Claws may deal with heartbreak, but Gonzalez has the uncommon gift to turn it outward and craft relatable songs about dealing with loss and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, especially on the album’s core tracks, the rousing “Leaf Off / The Cave” and “Every Age,” a universal ballad about knowing oneself, being good to one another and “making the best of this short-lived stay”—that may sound cheesy, but Gonzalez makes you believe. In the end, Gonzalez’s music communicates hard-won optimism, and as such, Vestiges & Claws feels restorative, passing through you and filling in the empty spaces.

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Indian Ocean (CD)

Using Al Green's former backing band, The Hi Rhythm Section, with melodious, mellow horns and splashes of jazzy, organ sparkle, former folkie Frazey Ford has reinvented herself into the 21st century progenitor of the blue-eyed soul sound of the '70s. Her wispy, almost childlike folk vocals easily could have gotten lost in the Stax-like sound, but the arrangements are soft and delicate. "September Fields" almost makes you think it's going to be a coffee shop acoustic set before suddenly an organ sneak attack pops up from behind. The tragic ballad of "Weather Pattern" is the raw, tear-filled ballad most musicians don't have the spirit to sing without sounding hackneyed or hollow, but Ford nails it so gorgeously and almost effortlessly. Indian Ocean's amalgamation of funk and folk work so harmoniously, you'll be asking why can't more musicians blend things beautifully like this?

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