Man I love folk music, you know? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love lots of music. Jazz is the greatest, classic rock is cool, I love me some Tchaikovsky, and I’ve been really getting into the electronic scene lately … but folk music; that’s for the soul. Not to channel the spirit of a particularly drunk Lightnin’ Hopkins too much, but folk music isn’t just any old music, it’s soul medicine. When I feel worn out from a week of early mornings and late nights, I can always pop on a pair of headphones, put up my feet, and listen to Mance Lipscomb wailing about all the women who’ve left him (spoilers: there were a lot), or the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, or maybe some early Bob Dylan. When it comes to folk, I love it all; the early blues and the Greenwich folk revival scene from the sixties; Tom Waits and the Clancy Brothers. If it’s a bunch of miserable-looking dudes singing woefully about the sorrows of the world, accompanied by acoustic guitars and maybe a tambourine, I’m there!
And hey, there are plenty of genuinely good folk musicians still working even today! Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown came out a few years ago, with a soundtrack chock full of incredible folk songs both new and old. Similarly, the Coen brothers’ latest effort, Inside Llewyn Davis, is replete with wonderful tributes to Dave Van Ronk and the Greenwich Village folk scene in general.
Twain Blue is my most recent discovery in the world of modern folk, and it’s one of my favorites. A duo comprised of Jesse and Sara Thompson, this is a music project that radiates simple and uncomplicated beauty. All of the songs are about love, of one kind or another, and all are brimming with wonderful lyrics, and vocals provided by both members of the band.
It’s not exactly the “point” of the album, but there are certainly a few things that were clearly on the duo’s minds when these songs were written. Themes of family, home and unerring love are woven throughout the album with sublime yet frank imagery, clouding the entire work in a haze of contented infatuation. This is apparent straight from the beginning with “Sweetest Thing,” which is, not to put too fine a point on it, a very sweet song, with vocals led by Sara and simple harmonies provided by Jesse.
Following “Sweetest Thing” is my second-favorite song on the album, “Come On Home.” It’s the ballad of a recently wed couple, exploring and adjusting to their new lives together. The line that really sticks out in this song is “It’s nice to know that through everything, you’re still in love with me.” This is, of course, a wonderful thought, and a good handhold for enjoying the rest of the album, because it really seems to be what it’s all about. Lasting love, untouched by age or boredom, blossoming for all eternity.
The title track is once again led by Sara, and with some nice instrumental accompaniment from a few strings and a harmonica, this may be the closest Twain Blue gets to traditional folk music on the whole album. It’s got a catchy little rhythm and the singer has a nice little voice that occasionally rises into its true strength, but mostly stays somewhat subdued in a soft melancholy. This song and one that I’ll come to in the next paragraph are probably the two that I’d feel most happy putting onto some kind of light summery mix CD.
The second-to-last song on the album is easily my favorite one, which is good because I hate it when a band blows all their greatest songs on a spectacular opening, then leaves the second half of the album flat. “Brothers Home” is one of the few songs on the album (actually, I think the only song?) that isn’t about romantic love; it’s about an entirely different, but also very powerful kind of love. I’m talking, of course, about the sort of affection that Philadelphia was named after: brotherly love. Now, I admit, I’m biased in favor of this song for multiple reasons. First of all, I grew up as the youngest of five brothers, so the subject isn’t exactly a new one to me. In addition, the song references the music club Godfrey Daniels along with a few of the characters associated with it, which would indicate (if I hadn’t already known) that the songwriter is from my neck of the woods. Not to mention the fact that music was as important to us growing up as it clearly is to the people in this song. All these things aside, “Brothers Home” has some of the most poignant lyrics I’ve heard in some time, and a great mellow feel to it. Actually, would it be inadmissible for me to simply quote all of the lyrics to a song as my explanation of why I think it’s great? Yes? Well, I’ll have to settle for just the chorus: “It’s home; / our home. / Where you know you love each other. / Oh, it’s home, / Our home, / Where you’ve always got your brother.”
Now, I admit that these words may mean a lot less to someone with no brothers, or to someone with no siblings of any kind. But there’s a certain unshakeable bond that brothers form in their early years; something that never changes, no matter how far apart from each other they roam. Some of my brothers I see every day, some every few weeks; one lives in (ironically) Philadelphia, which means I only seem him every few months, but once we gather together as a family, the times and distances that we’ve all been away from one another don’t matter. When we’re apart, we may bitterly remember an old grudge, or we may regret some frantic insult, but all these things vanish when we actually see the brother they were directed at. Similarly, I’ve found that no matter how successful and “cool” you may become as you get older (in your own eyes, that is), those things also vanish the moment you’re confronted by your elder brothers, and you revert to whatever your spot in the hierarchy was when you were a kid. (Uh, not me of course. I just mean … in general. When I’m confronted by my brothers, they just stare at me in awe, cowed by my radiant good looks and my awesome success in every aspect of life.) It’s this type of fraternity that Jesse Thompson (who takes the vocal lead on this song) it’s interested in for “Brothers Home.” It’s a very full song; it means a lot for me personally, and I imagine it would for many others as well.
The album ends with “Sun Don’t Shine,” the only Twain Blue song so far that’s not a soft ballad. It’s their first attempt at an upbeat singer/songwriter piece, which is already a tough style to succeed in, and they do pretty well. They maintain the theme of unerring affection, and there’s a nice little non-verbal part in the chorus. Not the best song on the album, but an effective enough ending.
I’ve always been very interested in the “art” (well, I call it an art) of making good mix CDs (or mix tapes, if you’re an old person). Because of this, I’m also always interested in movie soundtracks that successfully form good mixes. One of the masters of this so-called craft is Cameron Crowe, director of such excellent works as Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky. I’ve listened to the soundtracks of Cameron Crowe as much as I’ve listened to all of my absolute favorite albums; I look to them for inspiration, and I always try to emulate them when I’m putting together a decent mix CD (I totally just made my spring mix last week in preparation for the seasonal change). That said, there are a few songs on “Your Finest Ways” that I think wouldn’t sound out or place nestled amongst the mellow folk rock of Crowe’s Elizabethtown soundtrack. Now, that may have seemed a somewhat roundabout compliment, but trust me, it’s the highest praise. Twain Blue’s debut recording is a great little example of why folk music isn’t dead. Pick it up and listen to some wonderful acoustic songs tinged with love, nostalgia and a true sense of family. Cameron Crowe would be proud.