As if two singers stepped out of Greil Marcus’ Old Weird America and, trying to reconcile it with the real America they find around them, have created a world that is at once strange and utterly familiar.
American folk and old-time musicians and enthusiasts sometimes seem to harbor a deep nostalgia for a curiously anachronistic “time gone by” that fails to fit cleanly into any single period of American history that actually occurred. They hark back musically to a time that seems to be simultaneously the 1920s, the ‘30s, the ‘40s, the ‘50s, and the ‘60s, and thus produce music that sounds like both a product of all those eras and none of them. Instead, the music seems to emanate from some sepia-toned, alternate-universe version of the United States that exists mostly in our collective cultural imagination. This un-chronological and vaguely imaginary America is the folk musician’s Big Rock Candy Mountain, if you will, and there’s a whole class of contemporary songwriters questing off in pursuit of it, from Josh Ritter to M. Ward to Neko Case. The America of these musicians has a definite lineage -- Ritter imitates Dylan, who imitated Guthrie, for example -- and each incorporates the musical narrative of those who came before, while adding the sensibilities and concerns of their own era, adding layer upon layer to their own mythic versions of the golden age of American folk music.
And so we have Americana, that genre of music that can be frustratingly hard to pin down because it so frequently invokes a version of the country that is largely a myth, developed in the minds of writers and musicians. Sometimes, though, you encounter people whom you suspect might actually be the flesh-and-blood denizens of that mythic “America”. Nelson Kempf and Keeley Boyle, the duo recording under the name the Old Believers, could be those people. The couple, who are barely on the cusp of their 20s, appear in photographs as though a magician quickened two figures from one of Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers and dropped them into the middle of Portland, Oregon. And their music furthers that impression. Their debut LP, Eight Golden Greats, sounds like the work of two singers who have just stepped out of Greil Marcus’ Old Weird America and are trying to reconcile it with the real America they find around them.
It’s a musical landscape that others have certainly tried to chart, most recently and notably M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel in their outing as She & Him. But while Ward and Deschanel seemed to know where they wanted to go, but not quite how to get there without letting the musical history drag around their ankles, Kempf and Boyle seem to breathe in both worlds, and can thus navigate lightly and comfortably. Eight Golden Great’s debts to country, soul, folk, gospel, and bluegrass are clear, but the Old Believers are not traditionalists, and their songs shuck the customary instrumentation and song structure of those genres. They instead present a grab bag of Americana elements, presented in unexpected combinations and in concert with drum machines and synthesized keyboards. But over the inventive instrumentation and arrangements, the duo douses the album in reverb -- the sonic equivalent to soft focus and a diffusion filter in photography -- to give a hazy, nostalgic sound.
The resulting feel to Eight Golden Greats is akin to a vision of the future given by a movie about the year 2000 produced in the year 1960. Take “No More”, one of the album’s best tracks. The song is introduced by a rhythmic, computerized robotic voice, droning unintelligibly along to ringing electric guitar, which then cedes to finger-picked acoustic guitar and Boyle’s clear vocals. The robot voice fades in and out of the song as a bridge between verses, connecting Boyle’s spare acoustic verses to poppy vocal harmonies, and ultimately building to a rhythmic chorus that incorporates strings, sleigh bells, handclaps, and what sounds like a ratchet grogger noisemaker or tin spinner. As the song fades out to harmonica and an arhythmically plucked guitar string, you get the sense that this is Americana via the Jetsons, with its distinct 1960s “futuristic” aesthetic.
The unusual percussive elements of “No More” are a highlight of many of the songs on the album as a whole, and it’s one of the reasons that Eight Golden Greats stands out from the mass of folk and Americana albums. This may be one of the most airy albums ever to be driven by so much bass drum. The aforementioned spinner noisemaker makes multiple appearances, along with shakers, bells, and tin whistles. Boyle and Kempf have a propensity to use guitars and other stringed instruments percussively as well, and it’s all tied together with repetitive use of static, sonic blips, synthesizer notes, drum machines, and whatever electronic noise the pair can produce. It’s a tribute to Kempf and Boyle’s skill that instrumental bridges such as the one in “The Trouble I’ve Met”, which has synthesizer and harpsichord floating above a propulsive bass drum line as cymbal crashes alternate with the spinner’s swoosh, manage to breeze along so lightly.
None of this would work as a way of conjuring an America out of time, though, if Kempf and Boyle weren’t such evocative vocalists and lyricists. The pair alternate lead singing duties on the songs, and each provide their own distinct charms. Boyle’s voice can be soft and lulling or clear and ringing, depending on the song. Kempf’s singing voice, meanwhile, is deep and throaty, and has a soulful element that is present whether Kempf is trying to evoke jazz, blues, or gospel. Together, the pair sings celebrations of domestic joys and of the dreams and emotions that color daily life. On album stand-out “Granny’s Song”, above a muffled bass drum, Boyle’s oooh-ing backup vocals, and a “Stand By Me”-flavored violin line, Kempf invokes the smallest details of time spent with a loved one: “I curl your smoke around my little fingers / And laugh at jokes that I don’t get”. Even on songs whose subject matter seems well beyond the pair’s 20 years, Boyle and Kempf’s earnest wistfulness make the sentiments seem plausible. When Boyle sings the following lines, her youthful voice makes it hard to believe she could be so weary:
You’ve got a temper I’m too tired to cool
But I’ll wait for you, this time
‘Cause your eyes are soft and so nice and oh
I’ll wait for you, this time
I’m just getting older
But as the gospel-infused “That’s All” grows and builds, you come to believe that the pair’s careworn contentedness is genuine.
That seems to be the trick of this album: the Old Believers seem to really believe in their old, weird America, and they make the listener believe too. The biggest disappointment of the album is that, at eight songs and just under 40 minutes, it seems too short. The Old Believers have built a cozy, comfortable world -- strange but at the same time utterly familiar -- and it's one where you want to spend more time.