The Drama You've Been Craving

Whether these artists are writing about their own lives or creating audio short stories, the feeling is confessional, as if they are singing from the pages of diaries and journals.
Where's the artist? Cover photo of Mark Kozelek's What's Next to the Moon by Nyree Watts.
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Monday Mar. 5, 2001

The New Old Sound Of Ambient Folk

For Low, Songs: Ohia, Tram and others, quiet is loud enough

By Michael Goldberg

The name of the band is Low, and that about sums it up. Quiet. Silent. Low.

This is the sound of Ambient Folk, which has quietly, almost secretly, become a movement. From Sydney to San Francisco, Ambient Folk artists have found an audience of youngish music lovers disgusted by the creepy rock and pop promoted into the top 10 by TRL and hundreds of commercial radio stations that follow its lead.

To categorize an artist isn't really such a good thing — I don't mean to say that Songs: Ohia sound like Low, or that Mark Kozelek could be confused with Idaho, or Dave Fischoff, or Bright Eyes.

Those artists each have their own sound, their own voice and their own take on their life and the world around them. So do others, like Beth Orton and Cat Power and Tram and perhaps Kathryn Williams (as well as Ambient Folk pioneers including Smog and Palace Music's Will Oldham).

For all their many differences, you could call all of them musical poets, and not be wrong. There is a grace to their work, and a subtlety, both in the sound and the lyrics.

You hear acoustic guitars in the recordings of these artists, but most of them also utilize modern technology when it suits the song. None are afraid to incorporate electric guitars, or drums, or drum machines or samples. Whatever sounds they use, the net effect is natural. This music feels like people made it, felt it. >br>
A Sense Of Discovery

You can go back to the '60s and early '70s, artists such as Van Morrison and Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and John Martyn, Joni Mitchell and Brian Eno, Tim Buckley and Leonard Cohen, for the roots of the sound.

I think, however, that it's two late-'80s/early-to-late '90s San Francisco groups who represent the real ground zero for the Ambient Folk movement — the much lamented American Music Club and the recently reformed Red House Painters. The movement, of course, has its share of "rock" moments, such as the intense climax of Low's Dinosaur Act" (on their latest album Things We Lost In The Fire), and could actually be called the Ambient Folk-Rock movement.

The artists, from Songs: Ohia's Jason Molina to the Red House Painters' Mark Kozelek, tend not to put their faces on the covers of their albums. While most of them don't turn down interviews, they take a low-key approach to getting the word out about their art. The result, at least for me, has been a sense of discovery.

As a high-school-age music critic, I got a copy of Pink Moon, by an artist I'd never heard of named Nick Drake, in the mail. I put it on and was blown away. Later I had a friend hip me to the American Music Club; AMC's Mark Eitzel, in turn, told me about the Red House Painters before they were even signed to a label. Most of these artists have come to my attention in a word-of-mouth kind of way.

Whether they are writing about their own lives or creating audio short stories, the feeling is confessional, as if they are singing from the pages of diaries and journals.

You can imagine sitting at the campfire as friends pass around a guitar, each singing about a recent experience. When Low's Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk sing together "Hold me closer than that," in "Closer," you feel as if you're witnessing two friends kiss. Can music be any more beautiful than this?

The Critics Speak

The results of the Village Voice's 27th or 28th annual "Pazz and Jop" critics' poll were published recently, following those of the Rock & Rap Confidential Fourth Annual International Music Writers Poll. Perhaps not so surprisingly, the results at the top are fairly similar. While Radiohead's Kid A landed at #1 on the Rock & Rap poll, it took #3 on the Voice's poll. Outkast's Stankonia was #1 over at the Voice, but #2 at Rock & Rap. P. J. Harvey's Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea landed at #2 at the Voice, but #3 at Rock & Rap. U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind scored a #4 at Rock & Rap but only a #7 with the Voice. Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP hit #5 at Rock & Rap and #4 at the Voice. And so on. The Voice mostly polls U. S. critics, while Rock & Rap seeks out anyone who writes about music anywhere in the world. So how come mostly the same albums end up in the top 10 at both publications?

One musician who has had enough of critics' polls is former Soul Coughing singer Mike Doughty, who delivered a rant in the New York Press. To the 590-plus critics who participated in the poll (as I did), Doughty wrote: "...I would like to take a moment to stress what a jerk you are. You are just about as definitively jerky as a jerk can be. In the guise of a love of music, you've taken the most beautifully nebulous form of human expression, squeezed it through an asinine points-scoring system specially cooked up for this pointless perennial, and forced it into this baffling, heinous chart system. As if the cold reality of the sales-based Billboard charts weren't harsh enough, some insecurity drives you to think your opinions worthless unless musical quality can be quantified with a chart, too. What the fuck? This is incredibly offensive to me. It is wholly, grossly, patently unmusical." Temper, temper.

'Concept Album' Features GBV, Malkmus, Grandaddy

Don't ask how he managed to pull it off, but Chris Slusarenko's "concept album," Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel, to be released on Slusarenko's own Off Records, features new material written and recorded for the album by — get this — Guided By Voices, Stephen Malkmus, Quasi, Mary Timony, Howie Gelb, Minus 5 and Grandaddy. Not to mention the Black Heart Procession, two members of the Make Up going by the name Weird War, Lou Barlow/ Russell Pollard going by Sentridoh and more. Plus liner notes by the legendary (and now former) rock crit Richard Meltzer, who describes the album as "...a whale of an object — a veritable shitload (pardon my French) of sonic oo-poo-pa-doo w/ lyrics..." If you like some of the above-named artists, you'll probably love Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel, due March 20. We did ask Slusarenko, via email, how he managed to pull it off, and he responded: "It was just an idea I had been sitting on for a couple years. I kind of assumed someone else would beat me to it. So on a whim I made up some vague chapters for this character, Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel, and showed it to a few friends (Joe Sacco, Sam Coomes and Charlie Campbell) and I was really surprised at how enthusiastic their response was. It just gave me the confidence to start cold-calling the other artists and musicians that became involved. I'm still in awe that I convinced them to collaborate on the project. I think a lot of the artists were relieved to be working on a project unlike anything they had done before. It wasn't a typical compilation or tribute album where they could just throw me whatever tracks couldn't even make b-sides. They had to look at the whole story and work in a more abstract manner since none of them got to hear the others' music until it was done. I was a bit worried that it might be overly laborious for some but the consensus was that it was a blast to work on." And there you have it.

And By The Way...

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' next album is titled No More Shall We Part and will be released April 10. It's been four years since Cave and company's last album of new material, The Boatman's Call. Produced by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Tony Cohen at Abbey Road Studios last fall, the new album's 12 songs include the title track, "As I Sat Sadly by Her Side," "God Is in the House," "Gates to the Garden" and "Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow." Anna and Kate McGarrigle guest on several songs. On first listen, No More Shall We Part comes across as a powerful, emotionally rich work. Cave will play a handful of U. S. dates in March. He's at Chicago's Park West March 22 and 23, L.A.'s Wiltern March 25, San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts March 26 and 27, Denver's Paramount Theater March 28 and Seattle's Paramount Theater March 29. ... Fans of '60s "girl group" rock as well as punk will appreciate Miss Ludella Black's She's Out There on the Damaged Goods label. The album mixes covers of songs first sung by the Troggs, the Shangri-Las, Brenda Lee and Irma Thomas with originals by Black's guitarist, Micky Hampshire.

Michael Goldberg is the president of He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.

© 2001 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.