By Christian Schaeffer
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Who are the "folk" in American folk music? Are they the grizzled people of the Appalachian Mountains, picking on a hand-hewn dulcimer with coal-black fingers? Are they kids bashing out "Waiting for My Man" on a dime-store Strat in a Santa Cruz garage? Are they New York studio musicians trying to create a new American sound? The answer to all three questions is "yes" if you consider folk music to be any music that expresses the voice of the people. That's the definition that works for indie-folk acts like Iron & Wine and Fruit Bats, bands that use traditional folk sounds like resonator guitars and banjos but manage to rise above the amorphous "Americana" description that haunts many acoustically minded acts.
Of course, most musicians reject being pigeonholed in one genre, and rightfully so. Folk music still brings forth images of bearded fellows throat-singing and plucking a ukulele, just as indie rock is synonymous with skinny boys with poor social skills in too-small T-shirts. Where both Fruit Bats and Iron & Wine succeed is in attracting different types of fans, some with folkie beards and some with indie threads.
Fruit Bats singer and guitarist Eric Johnson agrees that the term "folk music" should be applicable to many musical styles. "I think punk rock is the last great folk style, because folk music is the music of the people." And while Fruit Bats' music would have a hard time being considered punk by even the broadest definition of the word, Johnson taught a class on the history of punk music at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, where he also teaches more traditional folk music with guitar and claw-hammer banjo. His attempt to erect a rock & roll high school was met with resistance by the school's purist founders. "It's strange because at the school teaching the Eagles is totally acceptable where teaching the Clash is not," says Johnson. He has a point: '70s classic rock has become a new kind of folk music. Instead of sitting around the fire singing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," modern hootenanies consist of "Hotel California" and "Wish You Were Here."
When Iron & Wine and Fruit Bats share the stage at Blueberry Hill this Sunday, it will be one of the strongest co-bills this town has seen in some time. Both bands are labelmates on the indie tastemaker Sub Pop, and both share an affinity for soft, hummable melodies in songs that take a microscopic view of love and the relationships that lead to or bring about the dissolution of it. Some have pegged these acts as the new heavyweights in the neo-folk movement that was founded by Will Oldham and Songs: Ohia's Jason Molina. Call it what you will, but it's potent, ear-catching stuff.
While Johnson likes to keep his definition of folk open to include almost any musical style, he doesn't consider Fruit Bats to be a folk act in the strictest sense of the word. "I think that the thing that bothers me about calling it folk is because it has an acoustic guitar on it," says Johnson. The latest Fruit Bats record, Mouthfuls, does favor the acoustic guitar, but it also employs synthesizers, xylophones and some pleasant harmonies from keyboardist Gillian Lisée. "Basically, I don't care [what people call it] as long as they like it," Johnson adds. And it's a hard record not to like; it may not be the most earth-shattering music put to tape, but try not to smile or sing along. It's damn near impossible.
On Mouthfuls, Johnson and Lisée spend the majority of the ten tracks looking at love from all perspectives, from the excitement and promise of a relationship to the destructive possibilities that come with giving yourself over to commitment. It can be a bit neurotic or abstract, like so many of the twisted love songs from the stable of Elephant 6 bands like Of Montreal or Apples in Stereo.
"[Mouthfuls is] about new love and fear, and there's a lot of apocalyptic images in there. My idea was to write a record about reproduction, about spring and all about that. If there were a central song it would be 'The Little Acorn.' It's about kicking yourself into gear with an absurdist list of instructions," explains Johnson. "Absurdist" is a fitting term, as the song parallels nature's cycle with lines like "killing swans with 21 guns/just to see them fall to the lake." It's not exactly Biology 101, but Johnson recognizes the difficulty of singing about the unsingable and makes grand efforts to put relationships in his own chaos-leads-to-order terminology.
This view of love-as-dysfunction is seen most charmingly on the last track, "When U Love Somebody." Here Johnson and Lisée, who are romantically and musically involved, echo another Chicago-based duo, Dolly Varden's Stephen Dawson and Diane Christiansen, with doe-eyed harmonies and inside jokes that only the bandmates can understand. When they sing "Baby, remember on the bus and your hand was on my knee/when you love someone it's hard to think about anything but to breathe," you want to be on that smelly Greyhound with them, just witnessing a tender moment.
Where Fruit Bats will place these tender moments in a shiny pop frame, Iron & Wine's Sam Beam requires a close ear to pull the beauty from the grain of his songcraft. Beam is the man behind the band, and on its two releases (last year's Creek Drank the Cradle and the recent EP The Sea and the Rhythm) he is the only performer listed. Both were recorded on a four-track in his Miami bedroom, though on tour he often enlists some help to flesh out the sparse, resonating sound.
Of the two bands, Iron & Wine falls more easily in the folk camp. The songs are arranged for guitar and banjo, and Beam sports one of those aforementioned folkie beards. As a result he looks, and often enough sounds, like Will Oldham, though his songs are strong enough to stand alone without comparison. When asked about the folk leanings in his music, he is cautious not to put a tag on it.
"People ask what kind of music it is and I don't know how to answer. There are definitely folk elements because of the instrumentation. I don't approach a song and say, 'now I'll make a folk song.' It's rock the only way I know how," says Beam.
In many ways, Sam Beam is simultaneously the ultimate folk hero and the anti-rock star. He teaches film studies at Miami International University when he isn't on tour, and he's more content to sit at home with his wife and family than to conquer America one rock club at a time. "I just write my little tunes and baby-sit my kids. I don't think about the identity of my band too much."
While film is a major love of his, Beam's songs don't have the cinematic scope that might be expected. His songs have a finite feel to them, like you're hearing a snapshot rather than a short film. "I approach it like poems; there's a visual, tactile part to it, but there's an emotional part to it," explains Beam.
Beam revisits many of his favorite themes between his two records. The title track to The Sea and The Rhythm explores the ocean and its push and pull, and how that expresses itself in two lovers on the beach: "Your hands they move like waves over me/Beneath the moon, tonight, we're the sea." Beautiful stuff, though Beam explains his oceanic fascination a bit less gallantly. "That came from a poem that my wife wrote, and she had that line about the sea and the rhythm. It's sort of a metaphor for fucking, really," he says.
When Iron & Wine and Fruit Bats embark on this tour, it will be a reunion of sorts. Iron & Wine's first national tour was in support of Califone, the Chicago-based deconstructionists of which Eric Johnson was a member. Beam describes Johnson and his partner thusly: "He's got great fashion sense. They rock it up a bit more than we do at times. But acoustic instrumentation makes it a good bill."