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?