Folk Underground,
Buried Things
(Happyfun, 2003)

If it were a book, it'd be illustrated by Edward Gorey. The film version would be directed by Tim Burton. But Buried Things is a CD, and Folk Underground is just the band to add a layer of macabre frivolity to the proceedings.

Featuring the Fabulous Lorraine Garland on vocals and violin, Trevor Hartman on vocals, djembe, accordion, trumpet, piano and percussion, and Paul Score on vocals and guitar, the Minneapolis-based trio benefits from the contributions of some exceptional guest musicians and writers, most notable of whom are inestimable writers Neil Gaiman and Jane Yolen and musician/producer Adam Stemple.

Gaiman is the band's most prolific wordsmith, and his three contributions include the band's lurid namesake: "They can wait in the dark / Without sighing or talking / They'll sing little songs / And they sometimes go walking / They'll come in the night / And they won't make a sound / so be careful of folk / underground."

It doesn't take a lot of experience with Gaiman's work to know that his brain works in strange channels. While the hungry worms and bony kisses of "Folk Underground" might give nightmares to a darling poppet or two, the lyrics (and music, also by Gaiman) are the perfect inspiration for a slim volume of Gorey's inks. Extra touches (a whisper here, a distant strangled scream there) add spice to the sauce.

"Going Wodwo" (words by Gaiman, music by Hartman) is a tribal-sounding paean to going native: "I'll leave the way of words and walk the wood / I'll be the forest's man, and greet the sun, / And feel the silence blossom on my tongue / like language."

Gaiman closes the album with his take on Faustus in "The Butterfly Road," which boasts disturbing imagery like this chorus: "Now there's no going back / and there's something undead / in your mind and your eyes / in your heart and your head / And if anyone asks how you feel / just say it was part of the deal." It's a party song, but the party hides danger.

Yolen adds a bit of vampire swing with "Rue the Day," another song set to music by Hartman. The piece originally saw life as the poem "Vampyre" in The Mammoth Book of Vampire Stories by Women. Lines to this sinister but danceable piece include "We do not shrink from blood's dark feast. / We take the man, we leave the beast. / A moment's prick, a minute's pain. / We live to love to live again."

Traditional songs do not escape unscathed in FU's arrangements. Listen for yourself to the new angles taken in "Ramble Away," "Galway Farmer," "Flash Company" and "Sweet Violets" (the first time I can recall hearing an utterly nonbawdy version of this song) and see if you don't hear a hint of good-natured mockery. Garland leads the way on "Lord Redfern's Return," the all-instrumental set beginning the album that demonstrates clearly that these musicians could easily survive as a pure-trad enterprise, if they so desired. They do it again with "TID (Things in D)," a track that includes a brief snippet of Slade's classic "Run Runaway" (via Great Big Sea, no doubt). Sounding nearly traditional is "Norwegian Dance from Hungary #1," a Garland composition that exposes yet a bit more gypsy in her soul, while her "Sea Wolf" sticks closer to Celtic roots.

One of the album's more offbeat tracks is "Port of Amsterdam" -- the song, penned by Belgian cabaret artist Jacques Brel and covered by singers as diverse as David Bowie and John Denver, starts in this take with a slow, Spanish-gypsy flair before evolving into an exuberant look at the seamier side of the port city.

"Idumea," a traditional piece, gets somber treatment as a processional dirge, a cappella except for a bit of percussion. Don't get too grim, however; it flows straight into Stephen Merritt's high-livin' "City of the Damned," with its upbeat spin on eternal damnation.

Alas, Folk Underground are among the minority who believe a long gap of silence on the final track is the cleverest way of concealing bonus material. Curses! Sure, it's cute -- particularly the piratical (but startlingly abrupt) remake of "Ramble Away" -- but it's not worth the wait.

So, one minor complaint and a tidy stack of praises. Dig up a copy of Buried Things and spend some rotting good time with Folk Underground, one of the most entertaining new bands of 2003. This disc is perfect for music lovers everywhere, particularly those with a quirky state of mind.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 13 December 2003

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