I grabbed The Folks Below‘s debut album as a blind (or is it deaf?) purchase to support my good friend/ridiculously talented photographer, Ray Larose, who did the cover and liner photography for the album. I ordered the CD version, in order to have my very own copy of said photography, which generously came with a free digital download to listen to while I wait for the physical goods to arrive. That’s not really important right now, but will become relevant to the conversation later.
The Folks Below is a folk trio with a dark… well, I wouldn’t use the word “undercurrent” – it’s way too forward for that. Let’s go with “dark overcurrent,” even if it does make my spell-checker angry. The eleven tracks are moody and sparse. The instrumentation is comprised of acoustic guitar, bass (electric and/or upright), and drums, and serves mostly to provide a foundation for singer Holly Brewer’s stunning voice. Not that the music is bad or poorly executed – far from it – but this is Holly’s show. She does the quiet and the loud, the demure and the aggressive, often moment-to-moment. Truthfully, I’d expect nothing less from a singer who works this hard to sell a story, as folk musicians are wont to do.
And sell the story she does. The album opener, “Town on its Knees,” immediately makes you feel the impending collapse of a town from the inside, sort of like a town in one of the better Stephen King stories. The track also features a great bit of a playful bassline, courtesy of band bassist Paul Dilley. Throughout, percussionist Nate Greenslit lays down very dynamic drum parts, displaying fantastic control in providing a lot of the music’s ebb and flow. The track “Ask Me” seems to start as a sassy tell-off of a questioning boyfriend from a less-than-faithful girlfriend, but twists and goes somewhere else entirely. Following this is the disturbingly specific, cannibalistic love song, “Eat Your Face,” which is (ye gods, I hope) delivered in a tongue-in-(hopefully-your-own)-cheek manner. The rest of the album continues in this manner. Different characters, different stories – but all expertly told by Brewer and company.
I only have one complaint about this album, and it’s not with the music itself. On many of the tracks, there is a buzz when the music swells. I’ve tested this in my car and with my headphones, both at various volumes. At first I thought it might be the bass, but it’s not that delicious warm bass buzz like at the end of the Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová track, “Falling Slowly.” It’s that buzz that happens when you crank your music up too loud on really crappy speakers. It also becomes prevalent when Holly hits powerful, high notes. Neither my car speakers nor my headphones are crappy, so I’m relatively certain that it’s a flaw in the mastering of the tracks. I’ll come back once my copy of the CD arrives and see if it’s present there as well. In the meantime, caveat emptor for the digital release.
Folk music isn’t really my bread and butter, but I really enjoyed The Folks Below’s debut, self-titled release. The songs are played enthusiastically, and with skill, and really leave me with the feeling that I’m missing a lot by not seeing them live. For me, that’s high praise. I’ve been to a lot of concerts and, generally, a band, however vigorous live, actually sounds better on their studio releases. The Folks Below make me feel like their album is a good-enough solution to the problem of not being able to catch a show, but that the real magic is on-stage. If you live in the Vermont area, try to see these guys. Maybe report back and tell me if I’m right.