[14 April 2006]
There’s been a lot of noise the last few years made about the “freak folk” scene. At this stage of the game I don’t imagine I even need to reel off the names of the various touchstones within the fledging movement of the flyers of the freak flag. Folks like Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Akron/Family, Michael Gira and Young God Records, Vetiver, and scores of others have all insinuated themselves into the constant morphing that is popular culture. What lasting impression, if any, these upstarts will leave on the generations of songwriters that are yet to come is debatable. What isn’t debatable are the far reaching influences of the traditional folk canon, the ubiquitous acoustic guitar and vocal harmony of such familiar names as Simon & Garfunkel, Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and others. These old gods have writ their cultural relevance into stone, and while I think they would be appreciative of the experiments being carried out by the freak folk movement, I can’t shake the feeling that their more direct descendents, those who choose to leave their sound unencumbered by oddball stylistic flourishes, are the folks who are keeping the sound moving forward. It’s not that Jose Gonzalez, Eef Barzelay, the Kings of Convenience, Mark Kozolek, and the Moore Brothers, to name a few, are better than their freak folk brethren, it’s that they seem just as comfortable producing a perfect harmony or a well-turned phrase as the freak folkers are at disrupting the same.
The Moore Brothers’ latest record falls decidedly in with the traditionalists. There’s little in the way of experimentation on Murdered by the Moore Brothers, which suits this record just fine. Murdered by the Moore Brothers sticks to the formula that Thom and Greg Moore have developed over the course of four albums. They keep it simple with beautiful results. While there are moments of light percussion and piano, the heart of Murdered by The Moore Brothers lies in the pitch-perfect blending of their voices with simple, understated acoustic guitar.
Not that there isn’t a trace of freak in the Moore Brothers; they just choose to display it lyrically. They hide bits of bile and a cutting wit within the confines of three minutes of lilting folk pop. “Fresh Thoughts of You” may sound like the title of a love song, the percussive guitar strum may sound celebratory, but it quickly becomes clear that said guitar strum is a stand-in for the repeated jabs of a fist when Thom Moore sings, “If there was one thing in this world that I would kill / You know it wouldn’t be cancer / ‘Cause even the tumor on my little toe / Doesn’t smell half as bad as the parties you throw . . .” An anti-love song? Mean-hearted? Maybe, but wrapped in the silky vocal harmonies of the brothers Moore, Thom’s vituperative sounds are pretty enough to sing along with. And that’s the Moore Brothers in a nutshell: unexpected lyrical proclamations supported and undermined by the power of two voices in harmony.
The brothers divide the task of songwriting right down the middle. All the even-numbered songs are credited to Greg Moore while the odds go to Thom. But since each song is dependent on the vocal presence of both, there is a seamless integrity to the album. Murdered by the Moore Brothers may lack the buzz provided by cutting edge hipster creed, the sort that props up many of the freak folkers while we wait to see if their self-consciousness turns into a lasting musical mark, but their clear understanding of the tradition they’re working within, not to mention how well they’re able to pull it off, deserves to elevate them beyond their San Francisco Bay Area turf.