The lovely year of 2012 held out some lovely folk gems out to us enthusiasts of the raw. Here’s a smattering of my favorite artists who I’ve been enjoying this year:

Alt-J (∆)

This unexpected combination of delicate guitar licks, electronic decorations, dancing compositions, and a strange-voiced & wideranged lead singer with intellectual lyrics is an unexpected tickling of semantic and protosemantic ear alike. They’re playful, seemingly choirtrained, and melodarhythmically tight. Their single Tessalate is about triangles, and Fitzpleasure reflects a chapter in Hubert Selly Jr’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn;” they’re some musically inclined geeks (just like me!) Their mildly disturbing, Momentoesque video for Breezeblocks elaborates on their dark complexities:

Joe Newman’s signature mix of voicerust and falsetto tangents is like the warmth of swimming in a cold pool — it takes some adaptation but when you get out you’ll just want to dive back in. His joyous intellect is infectious. Their songs are audiofractals, yet it’s so hard to define their algorithm. Here’s a live video to show why: they are an odd bunch of chaps who synthetically combine duct tape and an artificial cello, constantly switching up the mood. To me, Newman doesn’t look like how he sounds, perhaps a contrast he enjoys and defines Alt-J further.

The Tallest Man on Earth

Kristian Matsson is the kind of person who spites humanity by giving a terrible name to himself while still brilliantly passioning through howl and pick quite unlike any before. This sculptural Swede carves his niche of Americano Folk with precisely raw rambling and open-tuning hand-meanderings. His gravel growls are whimsically wise, and his midranged squeals — not your typical ‘beautiful voice,’ but tantalizing in its own right — traumatically tingle the spine. This Youtube exclusive version of his Revelation Blues off his 2012 album Leading Me Now highlights his dark thoughts and scrumptious picking patterns. This track, I ponder, is not the blues of a man, but a boy — the blues of too much discovery, the nihilism of too great understanding that leads to “roses dying too young,” the mathematical development of its petals wearing away its beauty before it fully blossoms. I’m guessing it’s a description of his personal journey with guitar when in high school he learned jazz and theory and that murdered the songliness of his strings, until he forayed into open-tunings which freshened up the experience again.

You can hear Matsson’s maturation from his older album, The Wild Hunt, which showcased his youthful optimism in such playful gandering as King of Spain and his cruelly emotional Love is All, both songs of searching and running from — whereas his more recent album is one of settling down and submitting to — bitter reality. “Love is all from what I’ve heard, but my heart’s learn to kill,” he screams in his chorus, an endorsement of life’s brutality despite the hopeful treatment we all give it.

Interpreting Matsson’s nature-lore lyrics and modern spite can be a difficult battle, but his wordplay and evocative concatenations of concrete descriptions with abstract advice leaves you with some sanctifying satisfaction even if you have clue what the hell he’s shouting about.

 

Shakey Graves

This man is a true folk gem, a Texan traipser of softsharp vocals with melting melodies and sillyserious stories. His many-harmonized album Roll-the-Bones is name-your-price, and his most recent EP, Donor Blues, are both swell, but I think most of his golden recordings are languishing on Youtube or in his unreleased repertoire, which I hope he shares some more of soon. He is a foot tapping and handshuffling genius, often stomping on a makeshift suitcase kick-drum with a tambourine pedal for his other foot, a deceptively powerful technique. You can see that here in his most popular song he describes is musical birth and his drunk-inspired name, and then performs his most famed Late July with his typical antique, minimally produced sound. “Fry like bacon, hang like lace.” You silly dog you.

Mary Ruefle describes poetry as madness, rack, and honey. Shakey Graves is a poet following that poem. He sings the honey of creation, his sweet melodies — but you can hear the tortured rack in his howls and the madness (and sadness) of his lamentations. His most delicate whispers shed their skins into blackened cracks at society. Though this is a cover of an old high school mate, it sounds like he wrote it. He sails the song like a waterlogged ship, sinking but persevering until it wrecks itself in shallow waters.

 

Ed Prosek

I was a friend of Ed in my youth. In fact, he was in a band with my brother, who drums. I recall listening to their Cazadero angst, something I both respected and was annoyed by. I knew he was talented, though I didn’t suspect he would become such a brilliant composer and vocalist at such a young age, nor that he would abandon his classical trumpet skills in favor of a sort of orchestral folk-pop sound. Still, those years trumpeting were wasted not — this brassy instrument requires an impeccable sense of pitch in order to produce a melody, for there is nothing to refer to like there is with the guitar (or the frequent mandolin in his songs). You can hear the brass in his voice. Delicate, falsetto brass. Listen to his California, which shows some scenes of where we grew up.


This song sets the tone for his whole EP of the same name: loss. He moved to Brighton, “the south coast of Britian,” three years ago to find his music scene, yet he misses California. He has lost his home, and found a new one, a suffering that so many great creatives have endured. The rest of his EP elicits scenes of loss as well: Elena stories up his grandmother who recently passed away; Sonoma is another reminiscing of his home count(r)y; A Final Word and If I’m Not Enough for You are both about a girl he regretfully lost. All of them are brilliant constructions of pain interspersed with tangents of hope.

He also knows how to make a cover his own. Consider his version of Paul Simon’s Homeward Bound, which was used in a Cathedral Cheese commercial. It’s probably his happiest singing. Contrast that with his latest single, Willow Tree, which you can hear on his website. Damn that shit is sad.