Tag Archives: Folk music

The Folk Monsters of Yellow Red Sparks

21 Jul

Yellow Red Sparks

Speaking about the self-titled debut album of his folk band Yellow Red Sparks, Joshua Hanson said, “I don’t believe that it’s possible to share everything a writer is feeling or trying to convey within 3 ½ minutes of a track.” Wise words from a singer/songwriter who comes close to doing the impossible with each of the emotion-packed pieces on the album. Hanson, and fellow band-mates Sara Lynn Nishikawa (upright bass/vocals) and Goldy (drums/vocals), pack in so much Indie/Folk goodness in each song that hitting play is much like popping the cork of an expensive bottle of champagne.

Yellow Red Sparks originally started as the moniker of Hanson, a solo musician from California. After adding two members – which accentuated the Indie sound – the band released its debut album in January of this year. In the Spring, Hanson was notified that his song “Monsters with Misdemeanors” won the Grand Prize in the International Songwriting Competition (ISC). The song was selected from more than 20,000 entries. High praise for a rising folk songwriter – and a totally deserved reward for a folk song saturated with raw emotion.

A soft acoustic riff sits over light percussion and Hanson’s mature vocal. Hanson’s style hits with a similar force as singer/songwriters like Greg Laswell, Ben Gibbard, and Joshua James. The strings help add to the song’s powerful melancholy. The song’s melody, which has a DeVotchKa feel, climaxes during the bridge in a similar manner – with rising strings and crying vocals. It would be a crime to not discuss the award-winning lyrics of the piece. The lyrics tell a story of relationship turbulence, but do so in an original manner – almost minimalistic in the short verses that feature such gems as “there’s a parked car that won’t let me over
And there’s one thing I’ll regret, but you’d be the last.” The song is true tour-de-force.

Make sure to check out the rest of Yellow Red Sparks’ excellent debut release here. You can track the band on its Facebook, Twitter, and Website.

Strumming Something New – Zan Strumfeld

17 Jun

Zan Strumfeld


While Zan Strumfeld carries her brand of stripped-down folk with her soft, Spektor-like voice, there is an endearing and subtle vexation on the horizon of her vocal that creeps through the sweetness of the piece and pulls the listener into her world of raw emotion. This quality is unique to Strumfeld, an Albany-based folky singer/songwriter.

Strumfeld – who has an excellent name for a person who plays the guitar – released her third EP, Someone New, back in April of this year. The album is a testament to simplicity. Strumfeld does not bedizen songs with electronics, pounding percussion, or superfluous instrumentals. Instead, she garners acoustic power with her multifaceted voice and some well-placed harmonies. The result is self-described “lullabies for the lonely lovers” and this one-sentence synopsis is quite apt.


Please excuse the contradictory nature of this description, but there is certainly a warm loneliness that penetrates the plucked strings of “Carry On,” a song that urges listeners to “learn to carry on.” Strumfeld’s piece is so intimate that it’s as if she is with you performing it live, and this local element adds to the songs potency.

“Someone New” puts Strumfeld’s voice on full display – abundant and delicate. The song may be a lullaby, but it carries a soothing ardor that keeps the listener hanging on each intonation.

Check out more about Strumfeld on her Bandcamp and Facebook.

The Night Folk Owl – Willie Ames

12 Mar

Willie Ames @ Whisky A Go-Go - 20th Annual Los Angeles Music Awards voting party - by JAMES IRWIN PHOTOGRAPHY

Willie Ames has toured all 50 United States, distributed 35,000 CDs to the public, and won several solo artist awards including the Solo Artist of the Year in the 20th Annual Los Angeles Music Awards and National Solo Artist of the Year and performer in the Phoenix Music Awards 2011.

So, yeah, more people should know about this folk guitarist/banjoist/singer/songwriter. Ames has been playing guitar since he was five years old, and, at 18 decided to pursue music professionally. He added a banjo to his repertoire at 23.

Ames plays a distinctive style of classic folk music that focuses on heavier percussion, reverberated noise, and a guitar/banjo style that combines the flavor of early Dylan and Dave Van Ronk with heavier folk artists like Amos Lee. Ames then adds a banjo to the mix, and, instead of falling into the bluegrass banjo trap, the music has an edge that sets him apart from other folk musicians. Listening to Ames’ music is fit with unconscious toe-tapping and head-nodding. The beats are almost funky. The sound is multifaceted like a bean dip (light guacamole on top and heavy beans on the bottom). Gosh, I just compared music to a bean dip. If that’s not a sign to introduce a song, I don’t know what is.

“Night Owl,” the title track on the album, perfectly represents what I mentioned above. The beat is authentic. The echoed sounds are reminiscent of a dark night in a deep forest. Ames’ voice reminds me of the Holy Modal Rounders (only slightly), a folk duo from the Lower East Side in the 60s who released an excellent version of “Hesitation Blues.” I hate to be so simplistic, but the song is just cool. I like listening to it.

“Stumbling Home” is certainly lighter. The banjo rhythm is catchy and constant. It’s a great song to listen to if you want to unwind. It relaxed me.

Check out more of Willie Ames at his website, Facebook, and Twitter

Quintessentially Quintus

22 Aug


In a way it is rather fitting that Quintus is named, well, Quintus. For all of you up on your Latin, Quintus means fifth. It took five years of recordings and the near death of the band before Quintus was able to piece together their first full-length compilation and follow-up to their 2006 EP The Shape We’re In. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely.

Back in 2006, Levon Helm produced Quintus’ EP The Shape We’re In and called the band one of his favorite new acts. The upbeat, country/folk album recorded in Levon Helm’s Woodstock barn, was never officially released because of a dispute with Downtown Records, the band’s label at the time, which was a shame because the album deserved to garner more ears than it did. Helm lauded the band’s maturity, and that attribute is evident in the tracks, all neatly developed, catchy, and exciting. The fire should have been warmed on Quintus, but it wasn’t.

Fast forward some years later, and I am writing to introduce the aptly titled Start All Over Again, which I hope is the beginning of a long career for the talented band led by producer, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist Reuben Chess. The 11-track album does not have a dud, which is difficult enough to accomplish. Every song has its own flavor, some touching on the Country elements of their first release and others toying with a folk-inspired poppy Indie rock that combines horns and acoustic instrumentation with old-fashioned rock n’ roll beats. They are a throwback making modern music. There is an inherent contradiction in that statement, but I don’t hear it.

“Just the Same”  is a good example of what I just mentioned. The song’s sprightly rhythm combines with Chess record piano (what a coincidence – much in the vein of Lafayette Leake) and even a taste of Travelling Wilburys. Chess even adds in Buddy Holly’s trademark late 50s stutter. The horns are added delicately and fall behind a harmony straight out of the 90s. The song is such a wacky combination of elements, and it works exceptionally well. Credit to Mike Riddleberger – drums, percussion, vocals, David Dawda – bass, acoustic guitar, ukelele, banjo, piano, vocals, and Dan Kreiger – keys for their tremendous work in this excellent song that is a great expression of the band’s talent.

“To The Fillmore East” immediately follows “Just the Same” on the album. Chess begins the song with a moaning harmonica that leads into his powerful croon over a crafty acoustic guitar that follows the vocal to a tee. The song collides at close to the one minute mark and the full ensemble introduces itself. Quintus’ harmony is strong throughout the album, but this song features it specifically well. The song even takes on a pre-Magical Mystery Tour Beatles feel or, better yet, a California Beach Boys feel. The breakdown at 1:40 is wonderfully original. The song is a tremendous joy to listen to, even featuring an untampered electric solo and a cajun-saturated vocal echo, finishing with a fluffy harmonica and whistle.

Levon Helm was right. Quintus is a special band. It’s time for them to get the notoriety they surely deserve. So, go on, tell your friends.

The album can be purchased at the band’s Bandcamp and you can catch them on Facebook or Twitter

Folk the World

4 Oct

In sitting down and thinking of folk artists I really like, it became apparent to me that folk is the red-headed stepchild everyone loves to criticize, but secretly enjoys.  Very few artists are “folk.”  James Taylor was clearly a folkie underneath his porous shield of vulnerability, yet he’s considered a singer/songwriter.  The Byrds, The Band and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young all were examples of bands that took folk roots (such as multi-part harmonies and 12 string acoustic guitars) and branched out into a more traditional rock sound and Johnny Cash first and foremost was country.  But I am here to glorify some guys that, although they may dabble in other genres, are folk through and through.

Bob Dylan is the most important single person in music since the 60s.  Period.  The Beatles may have been more popular, the Stones had more swag and Zeppelin was more talented, but as an individual no one influenced music more than Dylan.  On one hand, he was a traditional folk singer, a common man against the world as he became a leader of the counterculture movement with such songs as “Blowing in the Wind” and “The Times They are A Changin”.  Upon seeing just just how wild the Beatles could make the ladies, he went electric and spawned folk rock.  Even later, Dylan borrowed the use of the 12 string guitar and helped to create yet another genre, country rock.  That being said, Dylan remains a folk icon. (The video below is included just because it’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen).

Going in a whole new direction, Mumford and Sons are a folk band and one of my favorite bands of the past year or two.  You may have just heard the name or maybe listened to “Little Lion Man” on the radio but I’m here to tell you to listen to more.  The band has a unique lineup. Lead singer Marcus Mumford usually plays acoustic guitar, singing and also doing percussion with a kick drum (Letterman joked that they would take the money from going on his show to buy a real drummer) and the band also includes a banjo, stand up bass and a keyboardist.  However, they still do change things up a bit as someone will sometimes get on the drumkit and the electric bass will occasionally make an appearance and in the following video, the electric banjo becomes something of an electric guitar.

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