Music

Among the Oak & Ash: Among the Oak & Ash

Josh Joplin and Garrison Starr team up to tackle a dark collection of murder ballads.


Among the Oak & Ash

Among the Oak & Ash

Label: Verve Forecast
US Release Date: 2009-06-16
UK Release Date: 2009-06-16
Website
Amazon
iTunes

Josh Joplin and Garrison Starr aren't the first people you'd expect to come together for a folk music revival. Granted, Joplin's showed flashes of Appalachian influences throughout his career with the Josh Joplin Group and as a solo artist, but he's also just as likely to write a pop song. Nashville-based Starr favors rock hooks on her own records, and by her own admission wasn't well versed in traditional folk until Joplin began introducing her to the genre. Regardless, they come together fairly well on Among the Oak & Ash, which finds the duo tackling ten vintage folk tunes, two originals, and -- of all things -- one Smiths cover.

The duo don't set out to reinvent folk music in some 21st Century mold, nor do they put on white gloves and dust around these compositions with an archivist's care. Recorded in six days, the album contains a few very traditional tracks, as well as several that are distinctly modern in feel. If nothing else, Among the Oak & Ash has a little bit of everything for everyone -- especially if you like a good murder ballad.

Opener "Hiram Hubbard" sounds for all the world like a Steeleye Span nugget with its ominous backing and dramatic stabs of guitar, while "Peggy-O" boasts a strictly modern rock arrangement. Standout "Angel Gabriel" loses its traditional gospel feel in favor of something more akin to early, jangly R.E.M., while "The Housewive's Lament" takes on a singalong feel similar to something like John Prine's "Paradise". One particularly nice sequence of songs finds the pair easing from Joplin's a capella reading of "Pretty Saro" to a slightly plugged-in take on "All the Pretty Little Horses" to a short-but-sweet twang-filled "Come All You Young & Tender Ladies". To be fair, not all of it works. In the case of "The Water Is Wide", for example, it's hard to say that an updated arrangement adds much in the way of uniqueness.

In fact, the most revelatory things here might be Joplin's "Joseph Hillstrom 1879-1915", which showcases keen storytelling with a spry '60s folk revival feel, and their cover of the Smiths' "Bigmouth Strikes Again" (a bonus track). As strange as it may seem, Joplin and Starr's decision to keep the original's peppy arrangement doesn't make it stick out in a jarring way. In fact, on the heels tracks like "Joseph Hillstrom 1879-1915", Starr's croaky twang on "That Long & Lonesome Road", and the Joplin/Starr original "High, Low & Wide", "Bigmouth Strikes Again" absolutely sounds like it belongs. But then, Joplin does note in the album's press materials, "A lot of people think of folk music as something that's sweet and gentle, but so many of these songs are raunchy and brutal ... They cover everything from God to the devil, from unrequited love to murder." When you get down to it, there's probably not that much distance between a shallow grave on a mountainside and Morrissey lyrics like "Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking / When I said by rights you should be / Bludgeoned in your bed".

In tackling some of the darker corners of traditional folk, Joplin and Starr don't reinvent the genre (nor are they trying to). But they obviously enjoy singing with one another, and several of their renditions bear real fruit. It would be interesting to hear them continue down this road.

6

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image