Not every picture can provide the satisfaction of having said a thousand words. But the odd canvas can do its own admirable job of encapsulating the mood of 11 songs -- at least in the case of Brooklyn-based Folksongs for the Afterlife's full-length debut, Put Danger Back In Your Life.
The picture in question that graces Folksongs' cover, a piece by artist Mark Miller, is like the music contained within -- pastoral yet not necessarily peaceful. To the lower right corner of a poppy field hewn from rough earth-tone strokes and splotches of vibrant red, two figures engage in a questionable embrace. A well-lit woman's face looks into the face of a shadowy man. Her eyelids appear heavy, her lips either opening or closing. They each display one hand, clasped tightly together against her chest. The action is open-ended: Is she waking or falling asleep, being picked up or laid down? Is he her savior or aggressor?
"The minute I saw that painting, I thought it was what our album sounded like," says Caroline Schutz, the group's visual arts-trained vocalist. "It has a richness I try to have in the music. And the dichotomy is exactly what we were going for: Is it a tender or dangerous situation? The album is about danger, being attracted to it. So the painting sums it up so well the way the intent is unclear."
Conceptualized by Schutz as immediate melody for a more ethereal plane, Folksongs for the Afterlife has always been a project drawn to and from the dichotomous. At first a penname for Schutz's instrumental experimentations, Folksongs became more fully realized when she relocated from Boston to her native New York in 1996 and met producer/arranger Chris Sizemore.
The two labored to marry British folk (circa Fairport Convention's late-'60s heyday) with Neil Young's malleable minor-key structures and the compressed drum sound more common to hip-hop. A sound more familiar these days via Beth Orton and Azure Ray, at the time Schutz was forced to use the since maligned/ rendered empty term "trip-hop" to describe her combination of chiming melancholic melody and churning electronic innovations.
"Our greatest hurdle has been terms such as 'trip-hop' and, even more so, 'folk,'" Schutz reveals. "People have such preconceived ideas of what folk indicates. To me, it's universally effective melodies. But to a lot of people, folk means American/Joan Baez political folk. And that's not what we're about. I compose with more nature-oriented, archetypal landscapes in mind, more the dreamlike emotionally charged places found in fairytales. Despite our electronic elements, I have no interest in urban imagery."
Through a friend, Folksongs became acquainted with boutique British label Enraptured, which released the duo's 1999 debut EP of dense sampler-aided sway. Much the way Appalachian folk singers dressed up British traditionals in jig-friendly arrangements, Folksongs swaddled the influences of Richard Thompson, Nick Drake and John Fahey in contemporary textures.
Since then, Sizemore -- still an integral contributor -- has moved and had a child, making collaboration more drawn out. Schutz, meanwhile, has become reinvigorated by the idea of live performance.
"If you try electronic music live, you can often sound a little karaoke-ish, so I wanted a real live band," Schutz says. Gigging with guitarist Steve Toole, bassist David Gould and drummer Chris Deaner (also of +/-) resulted in a less electronic-based sound for Put Danger in Your Life -- more toward, say, My Bloody Valentine than Massive Attack.
Like the opiate adoring the cover of Put Danger Back In Your Life, the music of Folksongs for the Afterlife winds its way along your receptors -- relaxing, beguiling and eventually addictive.
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