Folklore – Home Church Road

Folklore - Home Church Road

Not being the sort of guy who immediately warms up to the sometimes convoluted and frequently ludicrous narratives of post-hardcore outfit Coheed and Cambria, I was a little tentative in approaching the post-apocalyptic storyline that accompanies Folklore’s third record, Home Church Road.  Concept albums and obsessively detailed imagery in music aren’t anything new, but when a record purports to tell the tale of animals peacefully reclaiming a decimated earth but then waging war on one another when a priest named Loki – a victim of vivisepulture, no less – unleashes his magic on them, flags understandably go up.

Was this the concoction of someone new to the prog/psych scene, it’d be tempting not to venture any further and just dismiss such musings as outright drivel.  But the man behind it all is Jimmy Hughes – a guy who, prior to releasing two other albums under the Folklore name, logged considerable playing guitar in Elf Power and consorting with the other members of the infamous Elephant 6 collective based in Athens, Georgia.  When Hughes began Folklore back in 2005, it was his M.O. to give storytelling a pivotal role in the band’s ontogeny – fiction as told through song, rather than exposition.  After the modest but undeniably positive acclaim for The Ghost of H.W. Beaverman and Carpenter’s Falls, Hughes relocated to Philadelphia where he rounded up nearly a dozen new recruits to bring his latest saga to fruition.  You have to applaud the dude for sticking to his guns.

In all fairness, Home Church Road is probably more immediately accessible than similarly minded expeditions into epic folk rock, like the Decemberists’ The Hazard of Love.  That album’s ornate instrumentation and Colin Meloy’s pedantic vocabulary made for a somewhat formidable listen.  This isn’t to say Folklore’s latest goes down with the same ease as Top 40 pop music, but there’s still something admittedly inviting about the lo-fi production values and strummy folk-rock that are Hughes’ stock-in-trade here.

For most of its 13 tracks, Home Church Road veers between dulcet acoustic meditations and fervent garage rock stompers.  The glue connecting everything is Hughes’ newfound collaborators, who bring just enough woodwind, brass, and string action along to make the whole thing gel.  Opening cut “Irrelevant Roads” is a tender bit of introspection, set to gently guitar strums, brass harmonies, and lyrics about an Earth transformed: “There once was a city / now has a river / fed by a spring / high in the mountains.”  “A Few Years Forward” at first presents a remarkably different band, with blasts of guitar distortion, bass fuzz, and the sort of abrasive instrumental breakdown for which Sonic Youth is known.  Forging a link to the previous track though is a beautiful trombone counterpoint and Hughes’ evocative lyrics, once again rife with water imagery: “Hallelujah / the rains wash in the gutters / and the gutters feed the stream into the river.”

And so it goes.  “World War” and “Crazy Days” are concise but touching folk tunes, while “The Party” and “The Unknown Adapted” state their cases as scrappy uptempo rock numbers.  “The Cows” presents even more juxtaposition, merging electronic burbles and effects-treated vocals with blistering amplifier feedback and the clarion tones of a clarinet.  This balanced composite of the unwieldy and the understated works in spades for Hughes, allowing even the most cynical of listeners – yours truly included – to take in the alternately utopian and dystopian backstory without any drudgery.  Though at first it seems counterintuitive to his motives, the short song lengths (most of the tracks fall well under the 3:00 mark) on Home Church Road turn out to be a key component of its success; there are no musical novellas tossed into the fray that might encourage charges of pretention or highbrow elitism.  It’s for these reasons that “The Ants” – a 7-minute séance comprised of droning wind instrument atmosphere and sitar-infused psychedelia – makes for such a bold statement when it finally arrives in the album’s homestretch.

Home Church Road is every bit as musically unvarnished and lyrically circuitous as most lo-fi indie rock, but there’s pleasure to be found in how meticulously Hughes and his new Philly band were in assembling something that at first appears so scattershot.  Dig beneath the surface past the stories of Loki and animals of future Earth, and you’ll find an album that offers just as many fetching melodies and taut grooves as more mainstream fare.  Don’t let those reborn dinosaurs scare you off.