Coined by The Wire writer David Keenan in 2003, “New Weird America” was an umbrella term for various psychedelic folk and rock musicians who, though practicing a disparate range of styles, all shared a certain freaky outlook, which is why the most common phrase for the bands ended up being “freak folk.” It could take most of a lifetime to sift through every New Weird release, from all the home-recorded cassettes and limited CD-Rs to widely distributed album releases so, to get you started, here are the best ones to own on vinyl.
Josephine Foster is a folk musician like no other. In her youth, she worked as a wedding and funeral singer while harbouring aspirations to the opera. Having settled into her role as a folkie, she’s nevertheless maintained a nomadic desire for artistic adventure. Her discography includes German-language songs inspired by 19th-century Romanticism, a children’s album, musical renditions of Emily Dickinson poems and Spanish folk numbers recorded with her husband Victor Herrero. Conceptually speaking, This Coming Gladness might be one of her more straightforward collections but there is nothing average about it. Foster’s voice floats somewhere between Joan Baez, Joanna Newsom and the opera singer she once dreamt of becoming, while Herrero’s guitar and Alex Neilson’s drums add psychedelic flesh to her otherworldly compositions.
Graduating from the pastoral hippy shapes of their earlier recordings, Strawberry Jam introduced the far denser, more electronics-dominated sound that would define Animal Collective’s subsequent breakthrough record, Merriweather Post Pavilion. Granted, “Unsolved Mysteries” is centred around the strumming of an acoustic guitar but it’s also adorned with all manner of bubbling aural oddness while Avey Tare yelps disconcerting lyrics about Jack The Ripper. Elsewhere, on “For Reverend Green” and “Fireworks”, it’s almost as if Avey Tare is striving to blemish the gorgeously misty guitar delay and cute backing whoops by screaming the occasional random lyric as if he is genuinely cracking up. His abrasiveness is never excessive, however, and is complemented perfectly by Panda Bear’s softer, more playful vocals.
Their sweary name might give the impression of a provocative punk band but in reality Tom Greenwood’s Jackie-O Motherfucker are rambling purveyors of rustic improv. After years of underground CD-R and vinyl-only releases, Fig. 5 came out in the year 2000, originally on CD only. That initial lack of a 12” was frankly ridiculous because if there was ever a record where the sweet crackle of vinyl would truly add to the album’s pre-existing scratchy atmosphere, then it’s this one. Thankfully, Fire Records issued an long overdue vinyl pressing in 2011. On it, drone tracks sit alongside choral prison songs, dusty post-rock walkabouts, pots-and-pans jazz meditations and a barely recognizable, yet still deeply moving, rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The prolificacy achieved by the group in the decade after Fig. 5 has dropped off of late, but this is not the only masterpiece to be found within their vast discography.
Having fallen for the band’s countless limited edition, self-released live recordings, some hardcore fans of Sunburned Hand Of The Man were a little worried when they heard that Fire Escape would be produced by Kieran Hebden, otherwise known as Four Tet. Most, then, were pleasantly surprised to discover that Fire Escape was no club-friendly slice of immaculate IDM but actually very much in the eccentric spirit of Sunburned’s earlier output. By recording four hours of Sunburned jams and editing the results into a neat 9-part suite, Hebden refined and showcased the band’s unruly improv powers without over-sanitizing them. Created by Yamantaka Eye of experimental Japanese rock band Boredoms, the LP’s cover was a suitable indication of the vibrant sounds contained within.
No-Neck Blues Band: Qvaris
Alongside Sunburned Hand Of The Man, the multi-membered No-Neck Blues Band were probably the weirdest of all the New Weird Americans. Their shambolic, shamanistic live shows might include nudity, stage blood and the inventive, childlike habit of wearing large cardboard boxes on their heads. 2005’s Qvaris is certainly one of the most celebrated, accessible and focused items in their sprawling catalog. Having said that, it’s not exactly Steely Dan. Guitars are spookily noodled while other unidentifiable stringed tools are plucked and scraped along to post-apocalyptic organ drones, cult-like chanting and the odd blast of noise that sounds like cats fighting. There is, nevertheless, an enticing, beguiling groove to several of Qvaris‘ tracks, not least on the Magic Band-esque voodoo shuffle of “Boreal Gluts.”
Although Matt Valentine has played in other groups and continues to make solo recordings, most of his output comes in collaboration with his partner Erika Elder. As well as crafting their own homemade, hand-crafted products, they’ve recorded for numerous independent labels, with a vast rotating crew of backing players, under various different guises, including The Medicine Show, The Bummer Road and The Golden Road. Fuzzweed came courtesy of the ever-reliable Three Lobed Recordings and is credited simply to “MV & EE,” although it does feature contributions from Mick Flower, Matt “Herbcraft” LaJoie and others. Take Neil Young at his vaguest, make him about forty times more dreamily stoned, and you’ll be somewhere near Fuzzweed‘s hazy abstractions. Early orders of this release came with a bonus live CD, Fantasy Set, and if you can find a copy with that included then you’re laughing. It’s another of their strongest collections.
Few people expected Joanna Newsom to follow her quirky neo-folk debut with a work as grand and ambitious as this. Widely considered one of the best records of its decade, 2006’s Ys consists of five tracks which together run to just under an hour. The album’s sparse harp sounds and gliding string arrangements, her allusive lyrics and piercing voice, and the sheer length of the tracks can make Newsom’s song cycle seem overwhelming and impenetrable at first. However, few records reward repeated listens as generously as this one. Each time you spin it, your ears will pick up extra little details in Newsom’s storytelling or unearth buried treasures in the subtlety of her compositions. It’s a work with which you can quite easily become accidentally obsessed.
Charalambides: Joy Shapes
Here, the core Charalambides duo of Tom Carter (electric guitar, lap steel, acoustic guitar, chimes and wind wand) and Christina Carter (electric guitar, voice and bells) were joined by the experimental pedal-steel player Heather Leigh Murray for an album that makes Joanna Newsom’s Ys look like The Carpenters. Joy Shapes‘ five tracks stretch to an indulgent 75 minutes of abstract freak folk, complete with haunted vocal moans, skeletal guitar repetitions, wind-charm rattling and a bohemian disregard for pre-prepared song structures. This is music that has been created, and captured, completely in the moment and the results are undeniably beautiful, in a very eerie kind of way.
Sometimes Ben Chasney, he of the Six Organs alias, will record on his own. On other occasions, he’ll enlist talented collaborators. Sometimes his style will be folky and acoustic. At other times, he’ll solo his way through blistering psych-rock jams. Elsewhere, he’ll steer into experimental, meditative drone territory. Recently, he’s even invented a chance-based method of composition, using tarot-like playing cards. 2005’s School Of The Flower captures the moment when Chasny shifted his music away from 4-track home recordings and into the professional studio to fashion a concise display of the range of his powers. Combining falsetto folk melodies, dexterous finger-picking, spiritual raga drones and the occasional foray into psych-jazz-noise, School Of The Flower is the perfect introduction to the world of Six Organs.
Wooden Wand And The High Sky Band: Second Attention
Prior to this release, James Toth (aka Wooden Wand) was best known for his freeform psychedelic jazz collaborations with The Vanishing Voice. While Toth had made tentative steps into the realm of song-orientated material with the lo-fi solo set Harem Of The Sundrum & The Witness Figg, Second Attention delivered his tunes with far greater confidence. Recorded live in the studio with The High Sky Band, tracks like “Portrait In The Clouds” remained ragged and ramshackle affairs, but this album captures that epiphanic moment where a shift into ostensibly more traditional Americana territory allowed the singer to find his most sincere and distinctive voice. In interviews from the time, Toth expressed frustration that his fellow freak-folk peers weren’t distancing themselves from the trappings of their scene in the same way as he. “It’s a shit business, but you’re not stuck,” he sings on Second Attention‘s “Dead Sue.” Toth has never seemed stuck since.