[9 April 2008]
Ripe with drama, rippling with rainbow colored acid flourishes, moored loosely with cello and violin and viola, but flapping crazily in the wind, this debut album from Ex Reverie is the most rocking, least traditional sort of freak folk, an ominous LSD daydream that can be entered but not explained.
Of course, this line of freak folk, with the emphasis on “freak”, goes all the way back to Comus, maybe further, as bands from the 1960s on have learned the traditional folk moves only to subvert them, soak them in acid, explode them into shooting star fragments. The line between psychedelic rock and folk is a fluid one, now as then, with bands like Bardo Pond venturing occasionally out of drone into delicate guitar picking, and artists like Devendra Banhart riding multicolored sea horses into styles far removed from porch blues. There are even precedents for incorporating baroque classical strings into the freakiest sort of folk. Just look at recent efforts by Fern Knight, Fursaxa and Rasputina. The bottom line is that Ex Reverie is different, but not unprecedented, following Grace Slick more than Joni Mitchell, opting for trippy, day-glo rabbit holes rather than gentle finger-picked murder ballads.
The core of Ex Reverie comes out of a Philadelphia avant-folk outfit called Golden Ball, whose two married members—David and Gillian Chadwick—establish the foundations for this band’s sound. They are helped along by much of Philly’s out-there royalty, Greg Weeks of Espers (and the label Language of Stone) cranking out his signature trippy electric guitar lines, Margie Wienk of Fern Knight on cello, and Jessica Weeks on flute. The result is a sound that’s half rock, half chamber orchestra, the rhythm often carried by sawing bows rather than slamming sticks.
The most interesting instrument, however, may well be Gillian Chadwick’s voice, witchy and untrammeled as it wails, keens, croons, sighs, insinuates and comforts. It’s the sort of voice that seems to be blowing in a hurricane wind, spiraling skyward in a sudden updraft, scratching and rasping as it scrapes the ground beneath her. She can turn on a dime from sing-song-y lullaby to banshee wail, and even after several plays through the album, you feel that you never know exactly what she’ll do next.
It’s a voice for myth and folklore, and, not surprisingly, it’s wrapped around some very surreal symbolic imagery. “Second Son”, which opens the album, finds her whisper-crooning about an evocative, not quite linear series of archaic images, “Little princes in their parlors, little dogs in their colors, little girls with their fathers, walking down a hall of mirrors.” “The Crowning”, with its scratchy cello rhythms, observes that. “sometimes this whole house is liminal” and finds a door to another world within. Yet the most compelling images have a skewed naturalness to them. The girl emerging from the water in “The Years”, “hair falling in ropes” is sketched with the clarity of a photograph. Though the song is about memory and forgetting, the image itself is indelible.
If there’s a drawback to all this, it’s the merest whiff of self-consciousness, a “how weird these songs be” kind of arch-ness that sets quotation marks around The Door Into Summer‘s most ominous moments. Every so often, these songs slip from genuinely creepy, fully-in-the-moment musical craft into playacting, with outsized gestures and overplayed emotions. It’s not easy maintaining the illusion of Middle Ages magic, baroque musicianship and 1960s rock abandon ... and every once in a while, the staging slips. Still that’s an occasional flaw. For the most part, this door leads into otherness, as brightly colored and mythical as freak folk can be.