"Baroque-Folk" is a modern Canadian Masterpiece

By Juliet A. Kelso

Contributing Writer

The 1960s gave birth to a wide range of eclectic hybrid genres which are now being revisited. Classic genres of the 1960s are making a comeback, and are being combined with other popular styles to create double hybrids. Baroque-pop is a term which describes rock ‘n’ roll infused with various elements of classical music. Rock’s edgy and wild roots are transformed by lighter components to produce a more airy and refined style. Early examples can be seen in the work of Paul McCartney and The Beach Boys. 

The second preexisting genre in this proposed coupling is folk. “Folk” is an extremely vague term and can be best summed up as any music that tells a story. Before the 20th century, folk was typically the music of the lower echelons of society, passed by word of mouth and written by unknown composers. Folk music in the modern sense began in the mid-20th century; while it is often very different from traditional folk, modern folk undoubtedly draws from it. The 1960s saw the apex of this genre. Musicians such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were pioneers of the second revival, serving as figureheads to those who followed. Resurgence of popularity led to different sub-genres and fusions including Americana, freak folk, psychedelic folk and many others, with artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez adopting the style.

The 2000s have been quite nostalgic, and the fusion of folk with baroque-pop, a term I call ‘baroque-folk’, is one of the products. A rich blend of inspirations from traditional folk, classical music and the second folk revival has been integrated into the indie music scene. It has become hip for artists to retreat to rustically scenic locations to write and record their music. This harkens back to the transcendentalist movement and produces music with a naturally spiritual feel.

As I have immersed myself in the indie culture and developed a fascination with the baroque-folk movement, I have noticed the role geography and background plays. I have reached the conclusion that the best work is being produced by Canadian artists. I was initially surprised when I noticed the pattern, but it all made perfect sense after reading up on Canada’s musical history. The country has a vibrant past of folk music from multiple immigrant cultures.

The king of Canadian baroque-folk is Arcade Fire, although they are much more baroque-pop than folk. Arcade Fire is an eight-person collaboration based out of Montreal. Each member is an impressive multi-instrumentalist, combining talents on the guitar, drums, piano, keyboard, bass guitar, double bass, French horn, cello, violin, viola, mandolin, accordion, xylophone, glockenspiel, harp and hurdy-gurdy.  They are arguably the most noteworthy and celebrated indie band, winning the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Album of the Year for their third studio album “The Suburbs.” The win was a triumph for the indie world since such a prestigious award is seldom, if ever, won by such an obscure group.

“The Suburbs” was released on August 2, 2010. The album is not considered folk but definitely exhibits aspects which allow it to qualify. The meter is steady and rustic, though dramatic at times, and the lyrics speak of everyday life and familial responsibilities. The pop-baroque aspect is also strong in Arcade Fire’s other albums.

To address the more feminine side of baroque-folk, one of the queen bees of the style is Canadian vocalist and musician Leslie Feist. Professionally known as ‘Feist’, the 35-year-old is a member of Broken Social Scene, a musical collective, but has become independently known for her largely successful solo projects. Her third studio album, “Metals”, was released in the U.S. on October 4, 2011, and has received much positive critical acclaim. The tracks reflect a modern woman with a deep-rooted and nostalgic soul. Her writing seems very impulsive, in a natural way. Any given track in the album can have such extremely contrasting high and low points that the listener doesn’t know what will come next. I see this variability as a reflection of the spontaneity of nature.

It is not uncommon for baroque-folk artists, especially those pursuing solo projects, to abandon stylistic elements which made them successful for innovation.  This is usually praised, but in the case of Feist, many fans and critics were disappointed. Unlike her previous work which focused on her gorgeous, classically feminine vocals that are coveted in the baroque-folk scene, “Metals” has a darker, wilder and more masculine tone. Her voice takes a back seat to her instrumentals, a tendency I’ve noticed among many indie artists. It seems to be a competition of creativity–or artful eccentricity.

The genre is ever-growing and exploding with innovation and creativity. I believe that it will be this very movement which will make the first couple decades of the millennium celebrated for pure musical genius.

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