August 20th, 2003 | Pitchfork | Matt LeMay
These days, it seems like everybody wants to be folk. Some people have argued that punk rock, with its easily reproduced songs and grassroots support system, represents a modern equivalent of the genre; others insist that hip-hop, with its origins in the street parties of the South Bronx, is the rightful heir to the loaded term. Even Soul Asylum and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have claimed to be folk acts at one point or another.
Yes, the seemingly egalitarian political connotations of the word “folk” are a pretty hot property these days. But the same certainly can’t be said about the word’s aesthetic connotations. As progressive as music that proclaims itself to be “folk” gets, the music that the rest of us call folk has remained pretty much the same– acoustic, unadorned, melodic, and often making use of antiquated words and phrasings. Even these purely musical qualities seem ideologically charged, though– folk music has been, and still is, often construed as anti-modern, which in no small part explains why the genre has rarely ever been permeated by electronic instruments.
Still, not everyone is afraid to take folk music in new directions. Will Oldham added more elaborate instrumentation, his own unique songwriting sensibility, and the word “fuck” to the folk music paradigm– with classic results. Appendix Out frontman Alasdair Roberts shares Oldham’s sensibilities in that regard, not so much dressing up the hundred-year-old corpses of folk songs as channeling their spirits into something very much his own. On this, his second solo album, Roberts allows himself more room to stray from the traditional folk songs he so obviously adores, making a record that’s ultimately less constrained and more convincing.
Farewell Sorrow opens with its remarkably strong title track, which sounds like one of the finest classic folk songs never written. Haunting and beautiful, “Farewell Sorrow” is impossible to place in time, as Roberts manages to deliver archaically worded sentences without sounding like a budget Yoda impersonator. “Join Our Lusty Chorus” fares less well, borrowing bits of a traditional hunting song without really integrating them into the greater framework of the song. Indeed, the most interesting thing about Farewell Sorrow is the fact that the entirely Roberts-penned songs often better convey an air of somber, musty beauty than those that are built upon traditional folk melodies.
As with Roberts’ debut full-length, The Crook of My Arm, Farewell Sorrow‘s greatest weakness lies in its dynamic and textural homogeneity. Though an endlessly pleasant album, it’s rarely transcendent. “When a Man’s in Love He Feels No Cold” is a charming song, but as shallow as its title suggests. The more expanded bass, drums, and organ arrangements Roberts utilizes here keeps the album from dragging too much, but also draws attention away from Roberts’ voice, which can be remarkably powerful when placed right at the front of the mix.
Weaknesses aside, Farewell Sorrow succeeds both in conveying Roberts’ love of traditional folk music and demonstrating his ability to tinker with and expand upon it. Increasingly, Roberts seems to be coming into his own sound– one reverent towards the past without gratuitously shunning the present. In other words, he’s found his voice, and all that remains now is for him to figure out what it is he wants to say.