Pop Songs for Elk
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Hillfolk Noir has an exceptionally self-explanatory band name, yet uninitiated listeners often don’t know what to make of the Boise trio’s eccentric, old-timey ditties. Oddity rules. Multi-instrumentalist Alison Ward exorcises ghostly fluctuations from a hand saw on the opening track, “North Idaho Zombie Rag,” which crashes through the woods and reverberates with a campy, spooky vibe akin to a trashy B movie.
Terms such as “psych-folk” and “punk folk” get tossed around to describe this veteran band. That’s fair. On Hillfolk Noir’s sixth album, tunes such as the leadoff track and album closer “Sniffing Glue Blues” are refracted through a surprisingly psychedelic prism. But most often, Hillfolk Noir’s instrumental approach remains fairly true to mountain-music tradition. Banjo, washboard and Mike Waite’s upright bass keep things seated on the front porch. Travis Ward’s eager, pleasantly unhinged vocal approach is energized by harmonies from his wife, who adds a hinterlands authenticity to the mix.
Tales of rural drama and ominous family members (“Uncle Jake”) give the lyrics a wink-and-a-smile dynamic, but you can’t really write off Hillfolk Noir as shtick. Travis Ward feels too honest singing the straightforward acoustic guitar ballad “Poor Man’s Love Song.” At their core, all three members exude genuine joy for what they do. (Including touring the United Kingdom this month.) Hillfolk Noir’s peculiar string-band niche won’t be for everyone, but that’s OK. Neither is sniffing glue.