Recently, I stumbled upon the idea that so many old folk and country singing groups were family (siblings especially) for a good reason: A family’s voices would be more likely to resonate with each other for genetic reasons, or something. It’s an interesting thought, but it doesn’t quite explain the effect sisters Lindsay and Alexis Powell of Festival have when they sing together. They’re no CocoRosie, to be sure; the effect is more of one person singing in unison, which is both lovely and striking. When, on “Boxcar”, one sings lead while the other murmurs and coos echoes in the background, it’s hard not to think of the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind, as classically conceived (let’s not think about the kind of analogy we’d have to get into thanks to the twistier bits of modern neuroscience).
The lineup of Festival seems to have firmed up a bit since Come, Arrow, Come! was made, with “long lost brother” Mike Powell joining the band live on drums and viola, but even here, as assisted by Jake and Jamin Orrall (late of Be Your Own Pet), one of the most immediately appealing things about Festival’s songs is their sparseness — sort of the way the Bowerbirds’ album made maximal use of minimal ingredients. Except for those voices, flowing smoothly through the record, most of these tracks feel like they get by on a beat, maybe a little guitar, a little zither. Digging back into the album, it’s actually cunningly fleshed out, but in a self-effacing way; for these 28 minutes, your focus is dead set on the voices here, which is for the best.
Recording on Greg and Jessica Weeks’ label Language of Stone (and like everything else from that label so far, showing more than a little kinship with Greg’s band Espers), Festival brews up a brief but potent shot of what I’m not sure we should call folk music any more. Leaving aside the fact that as a genre title “folk” is about as helpful in sonic terms as “indie”, Festival’s music doesn’t tackle the kind of subject matter that folk music is about (although “Fair and True” and “Bind Us All” especially feel like field songs from another, kinder universe), and freakfolk, New American Weird, etc. are equally unhelpful as descriptors. Come, Arrow, Come! is instead one of the best, tightest currently extant collections of mystically inclined, occasionally abstract acoustic psychedelia out there, second only to a record like Espers’ own II (and that I’d only say because I love the way II introduces drone and doom into the mix). The likes of late-album duo “Return”/”Even in the Light” are extraordinarily hard to parse as verse/chorus/verse songs, but as evocations of otherwordly-yet-human feeling they are exceptional. Like all the best psychedelia, it has little or nothing to do with drugs.
The record ends with “Come Outside!,” an extra layer of reverb coating the voices and the piano, a murky drum machine thumping along. That drum machine is one of the few overt clues here that Festival actually exist in our modern, mundane world, and it’s a good choice to end the record, a melancholy nod to something outside the atmosphere of the album even as we leave it. The Powell sisters possess, both literally and metaphorically, powerful voices, and it’s enough during Come, Arrow, Come!’s brief running time to create a sinecure against the disenchantment of quotidian existence (and bless them for — unlike most bands — quitting their debut while they’re ahead and leaving us wanting more; half an hour or so is a perfectly respectable length for a record, and one more bands should be aiming for). It’s the kind of debut that is both fully satisfying on its own, and yet strangely teasing. You are left wondering just how fantastic and moving Festival will become.