Ethnically-tinged folk music from the heart of Hollywood
With his third full-length album, LA-based Nick Castro both solidifies his place in the psyche folk movement and sets himself apart from it. No one—not Vashti Bunyan, not Joanna Newsom, not the Vermont collective Feathers—can conjure pennywhistled melancholy the way that Castro can, or the misty heartache of traditional British folk. However, as with last year’s Further From Grace, Castro refuses to be hemmed in by any sort of musical tradition, borrowing freely not just from English folk, but from Middle Eastern music, jazz and other traditions as well.
So there’s an exotic cast to even the simplest sounding of these melodies—the glorious folk harmonies of “Winding Tree” are punctuated by the slap of Middle Eastern hand drums. The lovely “Sleeping in a Dream” has a cavernous and somber resonance to it—Castro sounds a good bit like Bert Jansch here—as it winds through its first melodic half. After the chorus fades, though, there’s an interlude of dueling drums and gongs, as wild and unfolky as an African campsite. Like Incredible String Band, Castro has found the intersection of European folk and world music, drawing connections and contrasts in odd rhythms, sudden dissonances and unusual instruments. And like ISB, he is an inveterate collector of musical instruments. The liner notes list more than 20 different instruments used in making Come Into Our House, and Castro himself plays nine of them, including exotics like oud, saz and harmonium. “Attar”, coming halfway through the album sounds particularly world-spanning, with its wonderful pulse of electric bass cutting through a haze of non-western drums. The stringed instruments weave close harmonies, at times a jaunty minor-key sea shanty, at other times as foreign as a Middle Eastern spice market. The sound is often orchestrally dense reflecting a large and varied group of collaborators. Particularly strong efforts come from drummer Chris Guttmacher (who has worked with Cul de Sac and Damo Suzuki), cellist John Contreras and singer Wendy Watson.
Castro is omnivorous, devouring not just the sounds and instruments of other countries, but of other times as well. “One I Love” starts with a medieval brass choir—the sorts of harmonies you might hear on Salvation Army corner around Christmas—before breaking into a gallop with its main rhythmic chorus. This particular song was written by Jean Ritchie, a pioneering folk singer and musicologist who traveled from her native Appalachia into Scotland to find the source of the songs she’d grown up with. You get the sense that she and Castro—who sees connections between all kinds of musical connections—would have a lot to talk about.
The album’s three long cuts push the boundaries of freak folk even further beyond traditional verse-chorus structures. “Voices from the Mountain” is sparse, improvisatory and jazz-like with its dialogue between some sort of stringed instrument and drums. The best of these, “Lay Down Your Arms” is more rhythmically driven, its themes explored ruminatively in different instruments and palettes—guitar, bass and whistle—but connected by a hallucinatory vibe. “Promises Unbroken” with its dense mass of dissonant string notes and delicate picked arpeggios, is nearly as good. It breaks, mid-song for lyrics that perhaps talk about the balance between tradition and inspiration.
Come Into Our House is very clearly a part of the new folk continuum—and would sound completely at home next to records by Espers, Vetiver and Feathers. That’s not to say it sounds exactly like them. All these bands are restless in different ways, diverging from folk structures in ways that make sense to them. Nick Castro’s lovely folk music is all the lovelier for way it slips free of the rules.