Stark Raving Madrigal

Washington City Paper | June 2, 2006
In Martin Scorsese’s recent No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger tells the tale of the most famous tantrum in folk-music history: The reaction to Dylan’s fronting what was essentially an electric blues band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Many in the audience booed and wailed as the beloved Bobby tried out his new Stratocaster. Yet none were as piqued as Seeger, a folk fundamentalist if there ever was one. “Goddammit, it’s terrible. You can’t understand it,” the singer and banjoist told the sound man. “If I had an ax, I’d chop the mic cable right now.” According to other sources, Seeger then retreated to his car, rolled up the windows, and refused to come out. According to still others, Dylan was never booed in the first place.

Either way, 31 years seems like long enough for even hard-core “Kumbaya” types to get over their authenticity issues. But Greg Weeks, leader of Philadelphia neo-folk-rock act Espers, is apparently convinced there are folks out there ready to shun his band. “There are certainly people who would say that we’re very far removed from any kind of original folk purism,” the singer/guitarist said in a recent interview. Now, whether these people are flesh and blood or made out of straw is up for debate. Like so many groups in the new folk underground—or, to use Spin terminology, the “freak folk” scene—the three guys and three gals in Espers aren’t so much challenging tradition in a Dylanesque fashion as they are working in a post-Dylan tradition. For a lot of listeners who came of age after 1965, the Dylan-influenced bands listed on Espers’ MySpace page—fusionists such as Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, and Pentangle—are what folk music is all about.

Few of those who know Weeks from his days as a solo artist on space-rock-dominated indie Ba Da Bing! will find the hippie-era sounds on Espers’ latest full-length, II, to be in any way heretical. In fact, if the point of “Like a Rolling Stone” and what came after is that music should be about the search for new sounds and styles, then Espers is actually more Seeger than Dylan—more purist than progressive. Besides an electronic scribble here or a distorted guitar there, II’s medieval-sounding opener, “Dead Queen,” is uninformed by anything that’s happened since the last time semipopular musicians sang of deceased royalty—or 1973, whichever came first. It’s essentially an exercise in plangent, slightly foreboding pastoralism, and if that makes you wonder what the point is, you’ll probably be more interested in what comes next: a series of period-jumbling what-ifs.

According to Weeks, the heaviest of these tunes, “Widow’s Weed,” is so impure that it ought to prompt its own ax-wielding hissy fit. It ain’t all that. But the seamlessness with which the band dovetails placid Britfolk and creepy Brit metal is enough to make you wonder why this sort of thing wasn’t done to death in the early ’70s—or, for that matter, in the early ’00s, an era whose hipster underground is as rife with headbangers as it is with fingerpickers. Ditto for “Dead King,” a très druggy track that conjures old-school folk-rock channeled through Kraftwerkian electronica. Album-closer “Moon Occults the Sun” is more trad, but it does tend to erase the aural difference between some ancient, drone-producing stringed thingy and Weeks’ heavily effected electric guitar.

Call it patchwork. Call it pastiche. But as far as “authenticity” goes, none of the above is as much a stumbling block as Meg Baird’s voice, perhaps the most forthright feature of Espers’ sound. To describe her singing as derivative would be lazy—the word confers a sense of illegitimacy that seldom gets at the heart of a creative product. Still, Baird’s Avalon-evoking vocals, enchanting though they are, seem stuck in a period that might well have predated her birth, which puts them at odds with the rest of what’s going on here. The lyrics hardly help: On “Cruel Storm,” Baird sings of high towers, absent sailors, and a “happy land for the weary maid.”

Such fidelity is a problem inasmuch as you buy into Weeks’ idea of Espers as an outfit that sits to the left of most present-day folk bands. Those who want that to be true will probably have a fit over II, which shows that Weeks’ talent for recombination, no matter how beguiling, isn’t enough to push things forward. Those who don’t will probably be happier. After all, why throw a tantrum when you’ve got an album full of memorable tunes?

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