FAO#31: Mark Fry / The A. Lords, Meg Baird, Jeffrey Lewis and Savaging Spires

Although much is made of the egalitarianism and creative freedom bequeathed on the musical landscape by punk, it could be argued that folk music has been much more liberating and far-reaching for artists the world above. Whether it comes from its timeless flexibility or the crude fact that electricity isn’t always required to sow the initial kernels of compositions, folk music has and always will continue to recycle and rejuvenate itself in many different forms, regardless of fashion. The below clutch of releases certainly represent multiple tributaries that folk idioms continue to flow through.

Mark Fry / The A. Lords – I Lived In Trees (Second Language, CD + bonus 3”CD)

Mark Fry / The A. Lords – I Lived In Trees

This is something of a coup for aficionados of vintage acid-folk within the ranks of the Second Language label and its burgeoning following. Author of yet another recently reissued and previously lost cult ruralised treasure, namely 1972’s Dreaming With Alice, Mark Fry has been coaxed into collaboration with members of the younger wider 2L label family (namely Mike Tanner and Nick Palmer, trading collectively as The A. Lords) for only his third album in 39 or so years.

Those familiar with the frazzled rhythmic Tyrannosaurus Rex-meets-Incredible String Band strains of Alice (or even 2008’s more straightforwardly singer-songwriter shaped Shooting The Moon) are likely to be less instantly hooked here, but that’s not to say that I Lived In Trees is a disappointment by any means. In fact, this could be Fry’s most bewitching – if most slow-burning – set yet.  Unfurling exquisitely bucolic and nostalgic songs through his gentle and slightly plummy tones, Fry intriguingly – and probably unintentionally – recalls the often forgotten pastoral nooks hidden deeply inside Pink Floyd albums like Atom Heart Mother and Meddle. Meanwhile, Tanner and Palmer (along with other guests) paint detailed but uncluttered backdrops with acoustic guitars, harps, flutes, recorders, piano, harmonium, strings and almost every unplugged instrument available in-between.  Although the album moves at a somewhat glacial pace, its warmth and stillness creates a calming space that takes in folk-refracted and subtle rays of neo-classical chamber-music, medievalism, Hispanic cinema scores and ambient moodscapes. Whilst it might not command the retro-fried hipness of Mark Fry’s earliest works, the intimate and brave sophistication of I Lived In Trees should eventually be remembered with equal fondness and respect.

Second Language Podcast No.11 (featuring extracts from I Lived In Trees)


Meg Baird – Seasons On Earth (Drag City/Wichita Recordings, CD/vinyl/digital)

Meg Baird – Seasons On Earth

As a captivating lead vocalist in Philadelphian psychedelic-folk outfit Espers, Meg Baird has often been overly-submerged by her parent group’s murky FX-pedal stewing. With 2007’s solo debut Dear Companion, Baird tentatively and impressively peeled back her bandmates’ lysergic density in favour of sparse acoustic settings that let her elegant voice roam free. Perhaps the only noticeable disappointment of the album was the heavy reliance on obscure covers and traditionals, leaving Baird’s own songwriting muse overshadowed and untested. For this belated sequel, Baird has tipped the balance in the other direction, so that non-originals account for only two of the ten tracks.  Moreover, musically Seasons On Earth is a little less stripped-down, with her voice and acoustic guitar overlaid by plaintive pedal steel, occasional percussion and more gauzy studio treatments.

Yet despite such changes, the album is no massive leap outwards, as it still seals Baird in a melancholic introspective bubble, perhaps even more claustrophobically. Though of course, there is much beauty in sadness and perhaps the deepest depths of Seasons On Earth leave the biggest impressions. Certainly, the seven or so minutes of the serene “Stars Climb Up the Vine” provide the album with a crowning centrepiece, which ripples through the same waters as Vashti Bunyan, Linda Perhacs, Sandy Denny and – interestingly – This Mortal Coil. So stunning is the song, that the remainder of the album can’t quite compete with its spectral presence. However, other pieces do come close enough.  Hence, the yearning and more open “Babyon” makes for an inviting opener; the desolate “Share” uncoils itself with a Low-like elegance; and the relatively raucous “Stream” unbottles the record’s inner tension with spine-tingling edginess. The two covers – of the Marc-Almond Band’s “Friends” and The House Of Love’s “Beatles And The Stones” – also work well within the overall context of the LP, by providing a little more light without glaring out the shade. Overall, Seasons On Earth is not an easy listen and those with a need for instant gratification might feel locked-out. However, for anyone in need of a place to hide from the outside world, Seasons On Earth is a welcoming place of sanctuary.

Meg Baird – “The Finder”


Jeffrey Lewis – A Turn In The Dream Songs (Rough Trade Records, CD/vinyl/digital)

Jeffrey Lewis – A Turn In The Dream Songs

Practically the only one left standing from the short-lived ‘anti-folk’ scene of the early-2000s, comic book artist Jeffrey Lewis has survived by repeated reinvention. So much so, that he now owes more to Jonathan Richman and Stephen Malkmus than say early-Bob Dylan or Nick Drake. Having reached something of creative peak with 2007’s imaginative 12 Crass Songs covers collection, Lewis now has greater challenges in keeping his own artistry from sliding backwards. He comfortably kept himself in the game with 2009’s more electrified and more personalised ‘Em Are I and this freshly-cut follow-up captures Lewis working hard to sustain his balancing of the ridiculous and the sublime.

Musically, it’s more of a side-step into largely unplugged rootsy terrain, which works well for the record’s strong first half. Hence, the introductory “To Go And Return” shimmies in daintily with chiming mandolin, jazzy drums and woozy saxophone; the ensuing “How Can It Be” blends a Violent Femmes stomp with ramshackle doo-wop like backing vocals; the gorgeous lightly shuffling “I Got Lost” is wonderfully world-weary; the wobbly wordless “Boom Tube” provides a strangely soothing synth interlude; the uplifting “Time Trades” is just the right side of twee; and the bitter but self-deprecating “Cult Boyfriend” provides an anthem for indie-geeks across the globe. Thereafter, the album dips in quality and loses momentum with Lewis’s self-knowingness and adenoidal tones becoming more grating. Thus, the plodding, over-long “Krongu Green Slime” feels an in-joke worn thin, “So What If I Couldn’t Take It” meanders into directionless irritation and “Reaching” just sounds like an unfinished demo. If it weren’t for the dreamy tumble of “Water Leaking, Water Moving”, and the hilarious lo-fi hip-hop pastiche of “Mosquito Rap,” A Turn In The Dream Songs could just have stopped halfway-in as a fine mini-album. That all said, there’s no doubt that Jeffrey Lewis still has enough capacity to remind us of his powers of regeneration.  Until then, A Turn In The Dream Songs is best heard as a fans-only affair.

Savaging SpiresBending The Rules Of Time EP (The Great Pop Supplement, 7”)

Savaging Spires – Bending The Rules Of Time EP

It’s somewhat amusing to read this writer’s recent review of Savaging Spires’ eponymous debut album seemingly paraphrased back to him in the accompanying publicity blurb for this follow-up 7”. But then at least it suggests that the still secretive band might have acknowledged their speculated-upon influences. The three tracks here on this highly-limited EP (two from said album and one new cut) further magnify the ensemble’s diligent distillation of past acid-psychedelic-prog folk master works into something both meticulously authentic and magnificently fresh.

The A-side’s two album extracts therefore represent the band’s broadly split-affection for lopsided dark hippie sing-alongs (“Bending The Rules Of Time”) and utterly mesmerising warped filmic soundscapes (“When The Devil Says He’s Dead”). But the real merit of purchasing this slice of white vinyl comes through the previously unreleased flipside piece, “The Book Of The Dead”; an arcane spaced-out madrigal spread across six and a half blissful minutes. If there are more such offcuts lingering in the Savaging Spires’ no doubt cobwebbed woodshed, then the next album could be even more impressive.