The Old Believers: Eight Golden Greats

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.

The Old Believers

Eight Golden Greats

Label: Fine Romantic
US Release Date: 2008-07-10
UK Release Date: Available as import

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

That’s all

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

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

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