By Matt Fernandez
The Appalachian Mountains got a little closer last Friday night as the Attic Stairs and Spirit Family Reunion played Lunt.
Spirit Family Reunion plays a brand of rustic Americana – the band has a full time washboard player – that has somehow become the lingua franca of many hipsters in the densely urban wilderness of Brooklyn. The band’s set was charmingly likeable, but unfortunately hampered by poor sound quality. No one seemed to really care though – foot stomps thundered through Lunt basement the entire night as Nick Panken’s rich vocals still shined through.
In a way, this recent folk trend in indie music is refreshing because, on the surface, it appears innocent and honest. In a time when musicians increasingly rely on studio tricks like auto tune, folk music promises a much needed antidote to the malaise plaguing contemporary music.
But for all its honesty, this recent folk revival still comes across as wholly insincere. Instead of seriously taking up the ideals and ethos of folk music, many of these neo-folk bands are more interested in merely copping the pose of a simple mountain men and women. As hummable as the Fleet Foxes’s song “Blue Ridge Mountains” is, the idea of a Seattle band yearning to get back to a mountain range they probably have never seen is absurdly comical. The image of Spirit Family Reunion – much akin to that of O Brother, Where Art Thou? – suspiciously appears hollow and constructed yet undeniably trendy.
Sadly, these new bands are also completely devoid of any creative ability. Rather than push the boundaries of folk music forward, a lot of these hipsters from Brooklyn and the Northwest U.S. are simply content on recycling from the past in the same way Urban Outfitters probably stole your grandfather’s sweater. Spirit Family Reunion reuses all the familiar clichés – whiskey, cigarettes, “the hills”, poverty, etc. As fun as a lot of these bands are to indulge in every once in a while – last Friday's show was admittingly enjoyable – hipster neo-folk simply lacks the unique artistic ability to be taken seriously.
Ironically enough folk music –the music of the common people – appears to have struck a chord with a lot of upper middle class, white youth. Folk music has never relied on superior musicianship, and its song structures are all fairly identical. Instead, the music has always revolved around the potent emotions behind the music. Thus, it should come as no surprise that many neo-folk bands struggle to play sincerely when they sing about realities they’ve never truly experienced, like poverty. Appalachian hillbillies played folk to fight off the pangs of hunger; today, hipsters play folk to fight off the pangs of a PBR hangover.