The new Bay Area folk scene.

Songs you've got to hear.
Aug. 19 2004 6:01 PM

Left Your Guitar in San Francisco?

The latest from Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, and other odd fixtures of the new Bay Area folk scene.

Devendra Banhart
Rejoicing in the Hands (Young God)
Click here to listen to "This Is the Way."Devendra Banhart is part of an odd renaissance of Northern California singer-songwriters—odd because a dozen or so of them seem to be deriving influence, simultaneously, from some highly idiosyncratic common source. These artists mix unvarnished production and folk melodies with lyrics that emphasize free love, hallucinatory visions, and various other topics any stoner, hippie, or earth mother could relate to. Think of it as a folk music analog to the garage rock revival. The 23-year-old Banhart is the most precocious of the bunch—the first to gain national attention and possibly the most talented. On "This Is the Way," Banhart's warbling voice recalls both Cat Stevens and the delicate wail of a Depression-era blueswoman. Like most of Banhart's work, this song rambles a bit: "This is the sound that swims inside me," he taunts, "that circle sound is what surrounds me." Is he talking about yogic breathing? Smoking a hookah? It's unclear, but captivating nonetheless.

Joanna Newsom
The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City)
Click here to listen to "Sprout and the Bean" and here to listen to "Sadie."Twenty-two-year-old Joanna Newsome is equally precocious, though you may be tempted to use the word precious. That's because her voice soars like a helium-filled balloon and squeaks like someone who's just inhaled the contents of one. Plus, her choice of accompaniment—namely, a 6-foot-tall classical harp—is odd for a singer-songwriter. On "Sprout and the Bean" the rhythms are narcotic: The song seems to while away the day. "Sadie" gives a sense of Newsom's archaic syntax and lyrics. Sometimes she sounds a bit like a Victorian poet; at others, she seems like an unusually articulate pirate. One favorite, from the song "Bridges and Balloons," goes "And I can recall our caravel:/ a little wicker beetle shell/ with four fine masts and lateen sails."

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Faun Fables
Family Album (Drag City) Click here to listen to "Poem 2" and here to listen to "Lucy Belle."Oakland's Dawn "The Faun" McCarthy is another linchpin in this scene, and she shares enough obvious affinities with Banhart and Newsom that—on paper—you'd think she'd be capable of the same magic. Her music is equally weird, and she's got pipes. Problem is, she pushes her otherwordly visions far past whimsy into a paranoid realm that mimics the most nightmarish marijuana high your big brother ever warned you about. Looping, nylon-string guitars create the gothic mood of songs like "Poem 2"; McCarthy's severe intonation sends this one over the top into horror soundtrack territory. When she's joined by partner Nils Frykdahl, as on "Lucy Belle," his ominous, affected pronouncements further darken the tone. It's like story hour with the dark lord Satan.

Rogue Wave
Out of the Shadow (SubPop)
Click here to listen to "Postage Stamp World."Unlike the hypnotic, shamanistic types above, Rogue Wave's Zach Schwartz is quiet and sweet—a bit like Simon or Garfunkel. Out of the Shadow was originally self-released in limited quantities, but it's just been re-released by indie stalwart SubPop, and Schwartz has formed a Bay Area-based band to tour and write new material with. These songs are full of the kind of sonic details that insinuate themselves into memory. "Postage Stamp World" is the album's centerpiece. A cuckoo clock bleats, a careful snatch of harmony appears then disappears, and a yearning melody clashes unexpectedly with the jaunty tempo and quirky lyrics. It's a message to those unconvinced that the world needs another nostalgic, catchy folk-pop song. "You can all get in line," sings Schwartz, "And lick my behind."

Jolie Holland
Escondida (Anti-)
Click here to listen to "Old Fashioned Morphine" and here to listen to "Goodbye California."Jolie Holland is a performer both distinctive and straightforward enough to have lasting mainstream appeal. Her first album, Catalpa, was a lo-fi affair. The album's crackly sound was a distraction, although some used it to substantiate claims that she was an artist so great she didn't require modern recording techniques to wow a crowd. (Her melancholy voice does recall Billie Holiday's, though it's not as expressive.) Holland's new album, Escondida, doesn't quite stack up with the work of such giants, but listen to the woozy trumpets and easy swing of "Old Fashioned Morphine," and you'll swear she could be Norah Jones' bad-girl sister. The real joy of Holland's sad, sensual music is how it mixes up blues, jazz, country, and folk sounds as though those genre distinctions were relevant only to her predecessors. "Old Fashioned Morphine" is bluesy; "Goodbye California" points up the Texas-born Holland's country twang. In it, she says goodbye to California. You, on the other hand, might be tempted to pay a visit.

Alec Hanley Bemis has written for L.A. Weekly and The New Yorker and taught at NYU's cultural reporting and criticism program. He also runs the Brassland label.

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