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Pity the poor folk folks

[Originally published 1995 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

Immortal legends cast shadows over folksingers the way long-dead divas loom over drag queens. Women need to worry about aping Joni Mitchell (early Joni, anyway, which dazzles and immobilizes millions of rapt listeners to this day); men need to steer clear of Bob Dylan- and Arlo Guthrie-isms. And in 1995, folk smacks of a laughably antiquated form.

But consider this: A rippin' folk song dispenses as many words as a rap tune, usually with rhyme and a great deal more narrative cohesion; it's tremendously amenable to re-orchestration by other singers with different pipes and tastes in musical instruments. Even a cappella folk can work just fine.

My current folk fave, Kyp Harness (from Toronto via Sarnia), embodies a virtue I'm always pushing in this column: Doing nothing really new, but doing it well nonetheless. He's got three albums out; the newest, Welcome to the Revolution, is offputting in its title-track harkenings of a creeping totalitarian dystopia ("It's not something you can target, or even something you can name; it kind of infiltrates the landscape till everything just seems the same.... You can never see it coming. It always hits you from the rear").

But keep listening. "Ballad of Curtis Merton" epitomizes Harness's fluency in economically conjuring character and setting: "Afternoons in greasy spoons, we drank a dozen beers, with his red winter stocking cap pulled down over his ears." "Song for a Man" is all too accurate in its evocation of a failed, dissolute father, clocking the hours until death and vainly counting on alcohol to prop him up. A lot of us have known guys like that, and in our bar-besotten "community," some of us are surely headed that way. (Alcoholism is a graver social ill than homophobia, and if I had a choice of utopias – one without booze and one without 'phobes – I'd pick the former.)

The album picks up in tone a bit after this: "Moon Rider" actually features noticeable backing music instead of Harness's spare guitar strummings here and there; "Beneath the Sky" retools the archetype of the stranger in a strange land without undue maudlinness. But then it's back in the emotional dumpster with "Wayward Son," evoking hopelessness and homelessness in one swipe. The album-closing "Remember Love" proffers the sincere, idealistic, and modestly trite exhortation "not to be a hero in someone else's war."

If I sound like I'm damning Harness with faint praise, I'm not. It's just that his flavour of folk is far more adept at expressing the coupled pluses and minuses of the real world, where sweetness comes with a metallic aftertaste and the warm glow of sunshine can still burn. That's an achievement.

I'm looking forward as much to cover versions of Harness's bittersweet folk meanderings as I am to his next album. Consider that an invitation for any budding crooners out there. He's a local kid, and he's got a lot to say.

Rap in black and white

Speaking of cover versions, rap, and emotional pain, I believe I remain the only music writer anywhere who hasn't bought into this "trip-hop" crapola – those Brighton bands (Portishead, mainly) who traffic in mumbled lyrics of emotional torment backed up by a glorified lounge-lizard beat. I will, however, make a modest exception for Tricky, a former remixer du jour of dance singles whose début Maxinquaye fits right into the zoned-out trip-hop zeitgeist while offering one stunning, stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb track: "Black Steel," a cover of Public Enemy's unlistenably bombastic "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" (from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, 1988).

We typography queens get all wired up whenever we see a smart use of type in a moving medium like TV or film, or even music video; here Tricky's video parallels the mumbling effacement of the trip-hop genre by running lyrical snippets so fast, in such faded, overlapping Gill Sans Italic type, that they're actually hard to read. Think of them as subliminal signals, as scattered as the other symbols in the video – creaky vocalist Martine, a giraffe, a beach, an arch, a bulldozer. À la Neneh Cherry's "Manchild," digital manipulation denegrifies Martine's complexion to match the muted greys of the rest of the vid; as elsewhere in life, less is more, and less colour translates into more substance, even if it's hard to put your finger on.