Maybe it’s just me, but when I hear the word “creosote” I think of Son Volt and their lonesome, dusty sophomore disc, Straightaways. After I looked up “creosote” (“an oily liquid having a burning taste and a penetrating odor, obtained by the distillation of wood tar and used as a preservative and antiseptic,” thank you Random House!) the term made sense coming from Jay Farrar, a man who has spent the last decade or so chronicling lives choked by factory smoke. But how would the appellation “King Creosote” fit on Scottish alterna-folkster Kenny Anderson, who hails from a part of the world my cultural ignorance has painted in vivid greens and yellows? Quite well, it turns out, and apparently I’m in dire need of a geography lesson.
But first, a history lesson. Anderson is the head of the so-called Fence Collective, a coterie of like-minded musicians who use folk music as a jumping-off point for “skewered folk, folkadelica, nonsensical, bluedoh and swampguff” (as the Domino Records press release tells it.) Other Fencers include the James Yorkston, Lone Pigeon (Anderson’s brother Gordon) and countless other bands who haven’t made their way across the pond - Supershitbox, HMS Ginafore, etc. Homemade CD-Rs are the order of the day for most of these acts, but occasionally an official Fence Collective release finds the light of day on Fence’s own label, or through Domino or Bad Jazz Records. With that groundwork laid, King Creosote’s Kenny and Beth’s Musakal Boat Rides splits the difference - appearing on Domino records, it’s a compilation of home recordings and earlier label offerings dating back to 1995.
If folkadelica interests you, or you just wanna show off to your friends by supporting a foreign underground collective, Musakal Boat Rides is as good a place as any to start. This ain’t your grandaddy’s folk music, with roots in Americana. If anything, Anderson’s sample and tape-loop-heavy approach to folk song construction at times make King Creosote your hipster’s nephew’s folk music. Tunes like “Homeboy”, “So Forlorn”, “Turps” (surely the only song around which name checks Boulder, Colorado and Julie Andrews) and “A Friday Night in New York”, all cobbled together from loops, chanting monks, sterile bleeps ‘n’ bloops and a warm, earnest acoustic guitar, fall into the category of Beck-esque anti-folk. It’d make a good hype-building four-song stateside EP, if hype was King Creosote’s goal.
But he’s not looking for hype, and those exciting, experimental tunes are only part of the King Creosote story, for better or worse. The Fence Collective’s freedom to experiment proves a double-edged sword - with few conventions defining the genre (to say nothing of the fact that he’s the head of the Collective), no one can tell Anderson when he’s taken his music too far out to sea. Anderson is often too enamored with loops of ghostly harmonicas, accordions and pianos, and much of Musakal Boat Rides sounds like a lonely tugboat honking in the fog though given the album’s title, such a sound is likely intentional. Nevertheless, to these ears, “Lonepigeon’s Wineglass Finale”, “Pulling Up Creels” and “Meantime” all suffer from a heavy drone. If you’re on Anderson’s wavelength (or are Scottish) it probably plays as hypnotic, and closer to the “sound” of his hometown of Fife than the above-mentioned “hip” songs. I found it to be just so much studio fuckery.
When Anderson hits the mark on the forlorn sound, though, he’s a gentle, if off-kilter, coffeehouse folkie - and it’s probably his best incarnation. The guitar-only “Harper’s Dough” harmonizes a refrain of “You’ve got to rise above the gutter you are inside”. That thought is open to interpretation, but it sounds honest and beautiful coming out of Anderson’s mouth with a Scottish accent. And “Lavender Moon” - also light on sampling, it should be noted - calls to mind Nick Drake. (With its title literally only a shade off from Drake’s “Pink Moon”, maybe Anderson and songwriter Pip Dylan are guilty of song title sampling. Ha.) I’m not sure if Anderson realizes his quietest moments are often his best, but they are. Sometimes less is more.
Output aside, it’s invigorating to see an outsider art group like the Fence Collective coalesce and marshal a fan base. And Kenny and Beth’s Musakal Boat Rides is a fair introduction to a little-known branch of music. Adventurous ears would do well to seek it out.