The Cave Singers | Welcome Joy (Matador)

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cd_cave-singers.gifThis isn't a band growing tired of the strict instrumentation of folk music, this is as organic a sonic outgrowth as the genre has ever produced.





Jeff Tweedy once said that the type of music the Carter Family played was scarier than anything Henry Rollins could ever sing about. It's true. In my review for The Cave Singers' debut Invitation Songs, I wrote about how the unlikely new princes of folk were reviving that darkness, which had been largely abandoned by the genre's latter-day stars. But in the two years following that release, popular folk music has changed. Artists that had been taking liberties with folk's song structure (Josh Ritter, Bon Iver) and sound (Andrew Bird) inched closer to fame while continuing to make humane statements in the genre. On Welcome Joy, the Cave Singers keep straddling tradition (a requisite of folk music) and experimentation (a requisite of good music after 1964), but they've dug their dusty boots in on both sides.

The first two songs capture the woodsy, shed-jam atmosphere of Invitation Songs. They project a type of horror, sadness and emotional depth that make all other feelings seem less severe, but extremely important. These songs are also frustrating, since they sound like outtakes from the debut album. The band members said they didn't set out to make a folk record with Invitation Songs, and the first eight minutes of Welcome Joy make the debut sound like a remarkable accident. The band seems unable to improve what it stumbled upon. It's like finding out an idiot savant isn't really the latter.

But then "At the Cut" starts. A drum kit? Electric guitar? Distortion? This isn't a band growing tired of the strict instrumentation of folk music; this is as organic a sonic outgrowth as the genre has ever produced. The warm echo that helps define the band's sound extends to the new instruments, and by the time the ballads start again on the album's closing few tracks, The Cave Singers have redeemed themselves. They've enahnced what they never set out to create. The songs are more than the woodsy (and often lively) acoustic laments of the first record. They are funeral dirges and shouting matches with ghosts. The band has somehow gotten more serious,

Invitation Songs was one of the most surprising records of 2007 and stands alongside Van Morrison Astral Weeks as being one of the albums that sounds most like autumn. Welcome Joy is a similarly seasonal record, but it's proof the band is still warming up. It has the sound of a canned beer-fueled bonfire in October and the feeling of a family crushed by the drudgery of coal mining. It documents a human frustration that pushes us to the edge, but keeps us from going over. (And all that is just the music. The vocals probably say something about that, too, but Pete Quirk's nasal mumble makes the lyrics too haunting to interpret.) The band's sound is northwestern and it's Appalachian. It's still indefinable, and it's still excellent. A

RIYL: Josh Ritter, Uncle Tupelo, Bon Iver, Andrew Bird

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