Musical Genre of the Month: Freak Folk

It seems like some rock critic coins a new genre every other week -- and indeed, a quick spin through my iTunes playlist, sorting for genre, reveals all manner of genres I've never heard of, much less realized I liked, but which are nevertheless well-represented in my music collection, like acid punk (MC Paul Barman), art-funk (Les Savvy Fav), Americana-folk (Bonnie "Prince" Billy), dream pop (Ambulance LTD) and emo-core (Pedro the Lion). So usually when I hear terms like these, I ignore them -- until I heard about five bands I really like all referred to by the same unusual moniker: "freak folk."

What's freak folk? Well, it's mainly acoustic, draws from traditional folk but adds eclectic vocals and all manner of instrumental experimentation (hurdy-gurdies and toy xylophones show up a lot). It borrows a little from the 1960s summer of love aesthetic, but not so much that you'd get an old-school hippie and a freak folker confused (musically or otherwise). I think the best way to get a handle on a genre is to hear it, so without further ado, here are some of my favorite freak folk musicians.

Devendra Banhart is considered by many to be one of the movement's godfathers, and besides being early on the bandwagon, one look at this video will show you why.

Harp-playing, pixie-ish Joanna Newsom, in her flowing dresses and with her eclectic voice, is another poster child for freak folk. It's hard not to be charmed by songs like this:

Unlike our first two acts, Mumford & Sons is an English band, and perhaps a bit less eccentric, but they got heart, kid.

Sufjan Stevens is an old favorite of mine, and has sort of been grandfathered into the genre because of his cool voice, unique song structures and reliance on mostly-acoustic (and sometimes exotic) instruments. It's hard not to feel strongly, one way or another, about this song.

Animal Collective isn't particularly acoustic, but they're definitely psychedelic.

Akron/Family, another unusual Brooklyn band.

Bowerbirds seem to channel a kind of gypsy carnival / Tom Waits vibe.

In reference to this video, a commenter on YouTube wrote "Holy *&^%, when did heaven start a band?!" I concur.

Have you discovered any new genres lately?

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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]


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