The Modern Folk
Photo: Bre Taylor / Courtesy of the artist

Inside ‘Modern Folk One’ lurks one strangely fascinating Americana album.

Modern Folk One rings from serenely pastoral to shockingly different, making it a terrifically new twist to some sounds that are, on their own, not that surprising.

Modern Folk One
The Modern Folk
WarHen Records
15 July 2022

Portland-based multi-instrumentalist Josh Moss has self-released plenty of music under the name, The Modern Folk, but Modern Folk One is his first album released on WarHen Records. True to the adjective “modern”, his music doesn’t fit into any neatly-partitioned old-fashioned boxes. As far as the “folk” tag goes, that’s just as ambiguous, a wonderful depiction of Satchmo’s definition of folk music. “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.” While Moss does not employ horses in his band, you will hear twittering birds, chirping crickets, and barking dogs alongside the trumpet, saxophone, fiddle, steel guitar, banjo, electric Fender Rhodes piano, and electric and acoustic guitars. Moss has recorded quite a string of releases while going it alone, but on Modern Folk One, he enlists the help of no less than 12 other musicians and sound artists to help keep the record vital and multi-dimensional.

With only two songs per side, Modern Folk One opens with “Alma”, which stretches out for 14 minutes. It sets the record on a rhapsodic path right away, not unlike the less schizophrenic passages in the second half of Ummagumma. The birds are awake, the sun is dawning, and a delicately-plucked electric guitar sets the hazy scene with its clean tone and gentle reverb. Before integrating a fingerstyle acoustic guitar figure into the electric guitar line, Moss lets the field recordings become a significant part of “Alma”. After the guitars settle in with a banjo, a bit of tape manipulation starts to make its presence known in the background, albeit subtly. The fiddle’s entrance is so sly that you may not notice it, though you can’t help but notice the mounting of crickets as “Alma” fades out.

You only need to hear the first ten seconds of “Brightwood, Yellow Pine” to know that it’s an entirely different beast. The drum beat may be soft, but it sets a rhythmic course for the tune, a musical property with which “Alma” barely even bothered. With one electric guitar establishing a simple groove and the other electric guitar free to noodle, Moss keeps the arrangement going for three minutes before bringing “Brightwood, Yellow Pine” to a complete halt. For the second half of the song, a trumpet is wildly improvising into a deep well of echo while moody atmospherics surround the cavernous racket.

“Cranberry Lake”, which starts the second side, gets the “Lake” part of the equation out of the way early on with bountiful water noises. From the aquatic melee emerges a mid-tempo slice of indie-Americana where two lead guitars mimic one another for about two minutes before being stopped by another squall courtesy of someone’s field recording library. Sounding like a field of crickets multiplied by 200, a slide guitar mightily twangs away in the night before giving up, setting the stage for the near-17-minute closer “Almasti”.

Here, Moss challenges the listener in ways that make the first three tracks seem almost quaint. As a borderline-benevolent hum dominates the mix, a lone stringed instrument struggles to make itself heard, one note at a time. Whether it’s an out-of-tune ukulele or an out-of-tune mandolin missing a string, it will not prepare you for the saxophone solo. No, this is not ambient sax, looking to slide into the jam Jan Garbarek-style. This is a pre-gig hard bop warm-up, complete with piercing squeaks and rapid-tongued screams. Whether the saxophonist was listening to what he was soloing over might be debatable. “Almasti” returns to gentle fingerstyle acoustic guitar before running yet another tape backward, providing a bed for a far-away steel guitar solo. As the birds make their final cameo, the music fades into its eclectic, confused, and satisfying vanishing point.

When trying to describe the music of Modern Folk, it’s tempting to rest on old clichés about the kitchen sink. But Modern Folk One is less the sound of a kitchen sink being thrown at a sound and more the result of a few pieces of said kitchen sink placed in a blender. Some of the purees are nice and thorough; others are abruptly choppy by design. All of it rings from serenely pastoral to shockingly different, making Modern Folk One a terrifically new twist to some sounds that are, on their own, not that surprising. Context matters and Moss and company are overflowing with it.

RATING 7 / 10