Folktronica, or What Good is a Label?by Katy Henriksen
In a micro-trended, niche-market-driven world, musical genres and subgenres are becoming more and more finely labeled to convey the multitude of options listeners have when seeking out new music. A prominent critic can write a two-hundred-word review in which a band’s sound is labeled by a three-adjective phrase or a seemingly antithetical conglomeration of terms and—voilà!—a new genre is born.
Two fall releases, Talkdemonic’s Eyes at Half Mast (Arena Rock Recording Co.) and Castanets’ City of Refuge (Asthmatic Kitty), could each be filed under Folktronica, a term that’s been used for most of this decade to describe music that blends electronic/programmed sounds with acoustic/organic ones. But beside the fact that both recordings combine electronic and acoustic elements, the two have virtually nothing in common.
Other bands slapped with the folktronica moniker include the danceable, laptop-driven Four Tet, the world-rhythm-dominated High Places, poppy folkstress Beth Orton, and the loop-heavy, banjo-infused outfit Le Loup. In 2001 Momus, a.k.a. Nick Currie, released an album titled Folktronic, in part to satirize the label. With songs such as “Appalachia” and “Folk Me Amadeus,” Currie created his own anthology of postmodern folk: a sonic collage of bleeps blended with acoustic instrumentation accompanied by absurdist lyrics.
When the Portland, Oregon duo Talkdemonic released their first album, Mutiny Sunshine, they self-labeled their sound “folktronic hop.” The duo, consisting of Kevin O’Connor on drums, synths, and a wide array of acoustic instruments, and Lisa Molinaro on viola and cello, began composing together in 2003. The core of their sound rests on instrumental hip-hop, folk, and other electronic styles to form a lush, orchestral collage framed by sonic booms, synth hooks, and the occasional guitar or banjo refrain.
On creating their own label for their sound, O’Connor admits, “It was a joke at first, sort of hinting at the idea of our music being some sort of new genre, which is a bit pretentious. At this point, we pretty much hate that label and have gotten a lot of shit about it in the past.” In a perfect world, O’Connor would like to avoid labels altogether, but he admits that the process of coming up with terms to pinpoint sounds can be fun, like The Onion calling this type of record “druid funeral music.” “Being obsessed with genre labeling is a way of trying to make sense of the music,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve invented a genre by any means; we’re just making the music we make.”
About Talkdemonic’s music O’Connor says, “Our sound has always been an honest extension of our own emotions and lives.” What began as more of a solo looping electronic project by O’Connor evolved into today’s more collaborative efforts, as displayed in the recently released Eyes at Half Mast. “The new record was all about complete takes, as in one-take instrumentation in a full keyboard part from start to finish, or a bass line that rides out the entire song, or a more actualized symphonic arrangement,” explains O’Connor.
Talkdemonic’s music blurs the lines between folk, hip-hop, trip-hop, and even post-rock. Molinaro, a classically trained violist and cellist, provides decadently slurred and vibrato’d lines, as in “Black Wood Crimson,” which cascades and then builds to a dark euphoric cacophony amid massive layers of beats, distortion, analog synths, and nylon-string guitar.
The music of Brooklyn’s Castanets, the musical project of Ray Raposa, could be categorized as experimental country. And much like the music he creates, Raposa’s answers can be elliptical. When asked how he forms Castanets’ sound, his response is, “Bad whiskey. Living wrong and observing as any bored old third party would. Restless blood and calluses.” Not only that, but “a pursuit of beauty waylaid by fists and holes in the shirts of what would otherwise be considered an impeccable and perfectly suited coat for the occasion.”
Castanets’ City of Refuge, the band’s third full-length release, is brimming with slowly strummed, heavily twanged American traditional-esque motifs and Spaghetti Western guitar solos. Raposa’s take on “I’ll Fly Away” is a wispy, up-tempo frolic punctuated by autoharp. The album, recorded over three weeks in a Nevada desert motel room, is a scratchy sonic alchemy of twangy guitars, reverbed vocals, and atmospheric electronic noise. City of Refuge sees guest appearances from the likes of Sufjan Stevens and Jana Hunter in the form of minimal overdubs. Hunter’s backing vocals appear in the harrowing “Glory B.”
“Almost no voice hits me harder, stops me deader in my tracks,” Raposa says of Hunter. “When I got her takes back via email I literally went out to celebrate, the kind of celebration that takes a good few days to recover from.”
As for what he thought about labeling his music folktronica, Raposa is diplomatic. “It’s not really my place to say, I guess. I’m not sure how well it’d fly at Customs,” he explains. “You say ‘rock ’n’ roll’ and they stamp the passport quick. Eyebrows get raised and suspicions aroused at things hyphenated or polysyllabic.”
The write-up about City of Refuge on Asthmatic Kitty’s website specifically disdains labeling Castanets’ sound by stating, “City is many things, but amenable to a simple, generic description it’s not.”
When two such disparate bands as Talkdemonic and Castanets can both be labeled folktronica, the value of such a compartmentalization becomes questionable, yet music journalists continue to slap label upon label.
The trend proliferates in this era of short attention-spans, readers with no patience for heady abstraction or in-depth criticism, and an ever-growing information glut in the form of blogs, social networks, and other online forms, with listeners burdened by a dizzying array of choices for music.
Folktronica itself has precursors who pre-date the term by decades, and has Robert Moog to thank for the invention of the Moog synthesizer and the popularization of the theremin. As soon as Moog’s instruments hit the mass-market, especially the Minimoog model D in 1971, rock-based artists began experimenting with combinations of electronic and acoustic sounds. Before them came contemporary-classical composers like the recently deceased avant-garde legend Karlheinz Stockhausen, who staged illustrious experimental chamber orchestra and operatic works with elements of electronic experimentation starting in the 1950s. The list could go on to include electronic innovators Brian Eno, Can, John Cale, and countless others who helped break the false divide of electronic vs. acoustic.
A narrower interpretation of folktronica, specifically folk music that adds electronics to the mix, still brings together incongruous artists such as Sufjan Stevens and Tim Fite, both of whom juxtapose banjo with all sorts of non-traditional sounds. For Fite it might mean rapping and clunky beats, whereas Stevens would add a cherubic chamber-pop chorus adorned with shiny bleeps and twinkles.
In the end, some sort of compartmentalizing and categorizing of music is here to stay. Micro-genres are certainly better than the lazy equation of picking three completely different bands to describe an artist’s sound. While trend-seeking and buzzwords dominate, perhaps soon no one will be reading music criticism at all. Why read about music when the actual stuff is just a click away?
Folktronica, in essence, is experimentation, which both Castanets and Talkdemonic embrace to craft their sound. Each band has its own sonic vision, and they’ll use whatever instrumentation and effects will get them there. Listeners seem to be open to these experiments. Boundaries will likely further disintegrate as massive cross-pollination and integration of musical forms accelerate. Soon the number of micro-labels and the heaping of genre upon genre will make no sense, which is all the more reason for more, not less, music criticism.
The best music journalists explore the concepts and forms of music rather than trying to pigeonhole. They do this through actually conveying artists’ sounds through words or by talking to the artists themselves and quoting them.
Since there’s more to choose from than ever before, insightful takes on music are essential. The folktronica label may be an easy marketing tool, but the word alone will do little to describe a band’s sound. If, however, the label brings random ears to records by adventurous musicians like Castanets and Talkdemonic, then it serves a purpose. Just don’t let those labels become the defining characteristics of the bands who end up branded by them.
KATY HENRIKSEN posts regularly at helloloretta.tumblr.com and twitter.com/helloloretta.