[2 February 2010]
Weird, little lovely Josephine Foster. Along with the other first-wave of folk-revivalists that have characterized the early double ‘0s, Foster is one-part psychedelic and one-part deeply rooted in Americana and all its 1960s British imitations. However, throwing her into this tie-dyed heap of her weirdo contemporaries is a lazy association. Certainly, like Ray Raposa of the Castanets, Devendra Banhart, and Joanna Newsom, Foster’s influences are derived from a similar place. Not to knock these names, there is something undeniably more genuine, less pop-oriented, and technically sound in Foster’s work. This will either make her the silver apple of your listening ear or have you writing her off as just another trust-funded singer/songwriter who comes across like The Grapes of Wrath on LSD.
As the story goes, the well-trained singer and musician Josephine Foster got her start as a wedding and funeral singer while still a teen. Somewhere along the road she hitched a ride from her home in Colorado to Chicago, put up shop, and started playing music of her own creation. This resulted in a duo of self-released solo records, There Are Eyes, and a small collection of children’s songs, Little Life. It wasn’t until 2004, the same year of Banhart’s Rejoicing in the Hands and Joanna Newsom’s The Milk-Eye Mender, that Foster, along with a loose backing band called the Supposed, released the freeform acid rock-lite All the Leaves Are Gone simultaneous with a self-titled, experimental collaboration record with Jason Ajemian under the name Born Heller. With the freak-folk revival well under way and a pair of solid, positively reviewed releases, Foster suddenly became a recognizable name amongst the shared flats of indie kids everywhere. Well, kind of. Foster has never been one to side with accessibility. Her recordings are raw and unobtrusive and lean heavily, though not exclusively, on maintaining traditional forms, rather than melding them with pop elements.
For the most part, this trend continues on her sixth solo record, Graphic as a Star. A daunting 26 tracks long, Foster’s latest release is possibly her barest. Loosely based upon the poetry of Emily Dickinson, almost every other track is sung a cappella, while the rest showcase nothing but Foster, her guitar, and the occasional harmonica. Despite the lengthy number of tracks, only one song clocks in at over three minutes, which allows the balance between the whispery, café-friendly dark days of winter songs and her quivering, solitary voice to blend quite nicely. In many ways this makes Graphic As A Star come across as two separate albums that go so well that she asked, “Why not meld them together?”
Unfortunately, unlike Foster’s other releases, though, the spare nature that characterizes Graphic as a Star may have gotten the best of her. Where previously recordings have demonstrated Foster as the Queen of Quietude who can weave eerily beautiful and sometimes ancient melodies (see A Wolf’s in Sheep’s Clothing) into bizarre, moody collections, Graphic as a Star comes across mostly unmemorable and somewhat incomplete. “My Life has stood a Loaded Gun”—the only song over three minutes—may be the solitary mixtape-worthy track on the release to really return to, with its hymnal melody and slow, pastoral fireside harmonica solo. This isn’t to say the rest album is a wafer-thin waste. Taken in as a whole, Graphic as a Star is still a lovely output full of mellow, lo-fi traditionally structured blues-folk tunes with the occasional bird chirp in the background. (A 21st century Snow White would be proud.) It just sounds better when you’re not paying that close attention. Consider it a 44-minute long soundtrack for reading or to fill up the silence after a long day at work.
This isn’t a cop-out on Foster’s talents. As previous releases have showcased, she is a uniquely talented musician who has possibly recorded some of the most underappreciated avant-folk albums of this decade. But Graphic as a Star is not one of them. That is okay. Foster has proven her mettle enough times to excuse a slight misstep, which in comparison to previous recordings and some of the works of her contemporaries, isn’t so much a misstep as a slightly less imaginative showcase of her talents.