Different Folks
With DiFranco, Husky and Howard

November already? Insane.

This is about the time each year when new releases start drying up, and I’m left with live records and rarities collections. And while those are coming – I’m looking forward to rarities sets by Soundgarden and Wilco, for instance – the new stuff just keeps arriving. I am most excited by the imminent arrival of Goliath, the first Steve Taylor album in 20 years, but we have Pink Floyd, Foo Fighters, Copeland, Damien Rice, Tourniquet, TV on the Radio, Manchester Orchestra, Wu-Tang Clan and Smashing Pumpkins still to come this year, and possibly Quiet Company, if they get that fourth album out in time.

And this week, I have three more important records, one of which is likely going to find its way into my top 10 list. All three of them would fall under the umbrella of folk music, an appellation I have always found a little weird. I don’t like genre boxes anyway, but folk, like pop, seems particularly far-reaching. Anything with an acoustic guitar could conceivably be called folksy. So here is my little attempt to show three different sides of what we would term folk music, and talk about their differences.

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It’s been two years since Ani DiFranco released an album.

For most artists, that wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. But DiFranco has never been most artists. The fiercely independent owner of Righteous Babe Records has never had anyone telling her what music to release, or how often, so for most of her career, she’s been impressively prolific. Between 1990 and 2008, she released 18 studio albums (two with Utah Phillips) and a bunch of live records and EPs. Since 2008, she’s put out one, 2012’s Which Side Are You On.

So in some ways, the appearance of Allergic to Water in half the time that its predecessor took to emerge is cause for celebration. In other ways, though, it’s indicative of DiFranco’s new, slower pace, and fans like me are just going to have to live with that. DiFranco is now a married mother of two, and at age 44, she isn’t running on the treadmill at quite the same speed. The upside of this – and it’s a huge upside – is that DiFranco is wonderfully happy, and she’s making joyous, life-loving music. Allergic to Water may be her sunniest album ever, and for longtime fans, it’s a treat to hear her like this.

That’s not to say this record is all rainbows and sunshine. Many of its 12 songs delve deeper into DiFranco’s marriage to Mike Napolitano than she’s ever gone, particularly the darkest of them, “Careless Words.” It details the aftermath of a fight, in which regrettable things are said: “Never before could I picture even one foot out the door, but now that that door has been opened, it can never be closed, careless words I can never unknow…” “Harder Than It Needs to Be” is about bringing those fights back around to productive discussions: “We’d better just take a step back, we better take a breath, see what we can see, let’s not make this harder than it needs to be…”

But those are more than balanced out by the delirious love songs that populate much of this record, and they’re splendid things. “Wipe away my worries, my list of things to do, there’s flies in the kitchen and I’m still in love with you,” she sings in “See See See See,” and she waxes rhapsody in “Genie”: “You came out of the blue like twilight’s first star and we picked up on each other from somewhere deep and far, and we woke up married after one drunk fuck and I couldn’t believe you’d found me, I couldn’t believe my luck…” “Tr’w” and “Yeah Yr Right” and “Still My Heart” are all rapturous love songs, DiFranco repeating “I’m so into you” with a smile.

If this all sounds a bit domestic, well, you’re not wrong. The fiery political side of DiFranco’s writing definitely takes a back seat here – the worst she says about the world is that “we get so off track sometimes.” Instead, she’s all about the silver lining this time. The title track is about perspective, about realizing that people are doing the best they can. “Rainy Parade” is an exhortation to “take your lemons and make lemonade,” to look at the best life has to offer instead of the worst. And “Happy All the Time” is exactly what it sounds like, with no irony.

DiFranco is in a new emotional place, but musically, she’s taken a few more steps down the path she’s always been on. She’s undergone a consistent evolution from wrist-spraining acoustic folk-punk to quieter jazz balladry, with thick and complex chords and melodies that swerve hither and yon. She’s backed up by longtime bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Terence Higgins, and together they form a tight, jazzy trio. Ivan Neville plays keys on much of this album, adding a soulful element, and DiFranco has arranged some subtle horn parts here and there. She croons these songs with a quiet grace, like she’s having an intimate chat with the front row instead of aiming for the balcony.

And that’s Allergic to Water all over. It’s a delightfully personal slice of her life, one that finds her happier than I can remember ever hearing her. For longtime fans, it might be a shock – the anger has slowly seeped out of her music, and has been replaced by contentment and joy. For me, it’s wonderful. Others can pick up the Angry Young Woman mantle DiFranco wore so well. Her life is in a good place, and this album is a quiet celebration. If this means we’ll get fewer records, then so be it. I’ll be happy with the occasional drop-in on her life, and I’ll celebrate it right along with her.

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Two years ago, Australian band Husky made a huge impression on me with their silky-yet-earthy debut album Forever So. I put it in my top 10 list, and proclaimed songs like “History’s Door” and “Hunter” among my favorites of the year. I evangelized about them, and spared no opportunity to thank Rob Hale for turning me on to them.

It’s looking a lot like Rob and I are the only ones on this side of the Atlantic who care, though. Husky’s second album, Ruckers Hill, is out now down under, and I had to import it, as no stateside label seems poised to release it. This makes even reviewing it a tricky proposition for me, because if you want to try it, I’m not even sure where to send you. I’m willing to pay import prices for an album like this, but I doubt everyone is.

The true shame of this, for those of us in the U.S., is that Ruckers Hill is extraordinary, somehow an even better Husky record than the debut. Husky’s sound has evolved and refined, a tremendous mix of Fleet Foxes and Simon and Garfunkel, and the band’s songwriting has blossomed. There are 13 songs on Ruckers Hill, and there isn’t a single one I don’t in some way love. This makes talking about highlights tough, but I’ll try.

There’s first single “Saint Joan,” which finds room for the word “somnambulist” in its first two lines. It’s a stunning folk-pop song, lead singer Husky Gawenda wrapping the band’s harmonies around him on the descending chorus: “Oh, I am leaving, I am leaving…” “Heartbeat” is its equal, a deceptively simple number that explodes into something eminently hummable. “For to Make a Lead Weight Float” shows Mumford and Sons how to do thumping minor-key folk right, and the amazing “I’m Not Coming Back” darts from one sky-high melody to another, Gawenda singing of burning his hometown to the ground. The spoken section, unlike most spoken sections, is awesome.

The second half is somehow better than the first, buoyed by the tremendous “Arrow” and the particularly Paul Simon-esque “Mirror.” “Fats Domino” is one of Husky’s finest, opening like a ‘60s folk song and unfolding into a dynamic, beautiful anthem. I love this one more each time I hear it, and the care the band lavished on this song (and the other 12) brings me to my feet. Straight to the final track, the emotional “Deep Sky Diver,” this record keeps the beauty and gracefulness coming. I’m listening right now, trying to skip around and talk about individual tunes, and it’s difficult because I just want to keep listening to the whole thing.

Suffice it to say that Ruckers Hill is one of the year’s very best, and Husky one of the finest new bands I’m aware of. There has been a glut of folksy-pop bands lately, from Mumford to the Lumineers, and Husky outshines them all by keeping the focus on glorious, glorious songwriting. It’s hard to believe this is only their second record, and even harder to believe that so few people outside of Australia will hear it. If I’ve convinced you to give them a try, you can hear and order their stuff here. I hope I’ve convinced you.

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And finally, we have Ben Howard, another newbie making his second record.

I’ve said that Ben Howard is everything I want Damien Rice to be. Howard plays textured yet spacious electric folk music with epic track lengths and impassioned vocals, but unlike Rice, he doesn’t make me want to punch him in the throat every 30 seconds. Howard’s songs are driving things that leave room for a lot of air, yet dive down fascinating little tunnels, more than justifying their lengths.

Howard does everything right on his sophomore effort, I Forget Where We Were. It’s bigger, and yet it sounds more focused, the spotlight on Howard’s voice and blissful guitar playing. “Rivers in Your Mouth” rides its one guitar figure for five minutes, but it never gets tired – Howard finds new ways to elaborate on it as it goes along. The title track ebbs and flows masterfully, building up in the verses before crashing back down in the choruses. Throughout, Howard and his co-conspirators spin a dark, weighty atmosphere. Most of the time, it’s just guitars, bass and drums, but it feels like so much more. And yet, the instrumentation is loose enough to breathe.

Songs get longer in the second half, with the swirling “Time Is Dancing” leading you through seven reserved minutes and depositing you in “Evergreen,” a captivating, tender dirge. “End of the Affair” is longest at nearly eight minutes, but it earns every second, and I wish it were longer. Howard spins a particular spell with this record, one that fills whatever room you play it in, and winds its way around you, holding you close.

It turns out we’re going to get the chance to directly compare Ben Howard with Damien Rice next month, as Rice returns with his first record in a decade. I haven’t heard that, but my money would still be on Howard. I Forget Where We Were is a confident, lovely album, a second effort that cements him as a talent to watch. And I’ll be watching.

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There we go. Jazzy folk music, poppy melodic folk music, and sparse emotional folk music. All different, all worth hearing.

Next week, Pink Floyd, and probably a summation of Doctor Who’s 34th season. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.