The Deep Dark Woods – Yarrow
Six Shooter Records – 27 October 2017
Yarrow is the 6th album from The Deep Dark Woods. I’ve been aware of the band for a while now, in fact, their song The Banks of the Leopold Canal is something of a favourite of mine. In my non-existent virtual record collection, I had filed them under Americana, an electric bunch of grunge merchants with wispy beards who looked like they were forever on the road and hadn’t had time to iron their clothes.
On closer investigation, this is only partially true but that highlights the differences between America’s relationship with its musical history and our own. The whole alt-country movement which has blossomed into Americana shows a healthy propensity for young North Americans to delve into roots music without any degree of self-consciousness. This, at its most mainstream, can result in an artist such as Tom Petty covering ‘Shady Grove‘ or at the other cultural extreme the Grateful Dead plundering ‘Rain and Snow‘. The only comparable example I can think of in British culture is when Traffic covered ‘John Barleycorn’, and that was a very long time ago. If a young British band were to attempt to approach the same material as The Deep Dark Woods they would almost certainly have come from some folk dynasty, they would play folk festivals and would probably feel the need to hire a fiddle or melodeon player (or probably both). It’s worth mentioning that The Deep Dark Woods are actually from Canada, Saskatchewan to be precise, I suspect that their relative isolation has influenced their devil may care attitude to the music they choose to make.
I assume that the band don’t really possess much of a folk sensibility in the traditional sense. They have a rock line up of electric guitars, keyboards and a standard rhythm section. In the past, they have been quite good at capturing the chug of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse or the plod of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds circa ‘No More Shall We Part’. The press release from Six Shooter Records (motto ‘life is too short to listen to shitty music’) is a bit light on facts but photos show that the band have slimmed down from a five-piece to just three members. It’s always a bit concerning when this happens but the record company state that the band on the record are the same Deep Dark Woods as previously so let’s hope the band are still intact.
There is still a sense though that frontman/singer songwriter Ryan Boldt (previously interviewed here on Folk Radio UK and his solo album Broadsides Ballads reviewed here) is the main force behind this recording. Boldt has a kind of alternative star quality. His voice is both sweet and dark, I must confess I had to turn to the lyric sheets on occasions as sometimes his voice seems to tail off in a quite spectral way. Boldt’s idiosyncrasies are a large part of his charm however, he brings a sense of forlorn foreboding to every song. On The Winter Has Passed he sings
The winter it has passed, and the summer’s come at last
The branches they are tender, it’s putting forth its leaves
A new day has come, the mournful light has shone
The birds are glad, they’re singing in the trees
But there are no maypoles to dance around in Boldt’s world. The song is sung with a sense of dread. This is lyrically the happiest song on the album! Out of the nine tracks, two concern specific deaths, another a murder, a couple dwell on lost loves (and wanting to die) which leaves a song about a terrible flood for light relief.
It sounds grim but a lot of folk music (the best kind) is. Apparently these songs were generated by a bout of scarlet fever although it’s unclear if Boldt contracted this quaintly outdated illness, however, his lyrics seem to have taken on a distinctly acquainted style On San Juan Hill, he quotes from the lyrics I recognise from ‘A Sailors Life‘. On ‘Drifting on a Summers Night‘ he describes a break-up
She left me in the morning
At nearly half past nine
She waited till the clouds did weep
To tell me she’d never be mine
These could be lyrics from almost any time in the last 200 years. There’s a Gothic surrealism at play here but it never seems forced or false. The music, by comparison, is classic Americana. Sometimes like the relatively upbeat Roll Julia, there’s a similarity to The Band or at least Dylan circa Nashville Skyline. Up on the Mountaintop has the same DNA as Matty Groves, there’s even that rather exciting moment where the verse ends and the band crank up into a solo just like Fairport used to do when Richard Thompson was about to cut loose. Overall though there’s not a lot of rocking out although there is plenty of texture and restraint which is really what the band does best. The most immediate song is probably ‘Teardrops Fell‘ which in the right hands and with the aid of a time machine could have been a hit for Patsy Cline, in a strange way it is also the most modern sounding track here. Special mention goes to an unnamed backing vocalist who as well as her expected duties occasionally plays Emmylou to Boldt’s Gram which is particularly effective.
And so the Deep Dark Woods have created a kind of dark folk-rock that seems to have materialised organically. If they come to Britain I suspect they will be playing the Green Man Festival rather than Cropredy and their audiences will be the kind of people who will probably never go to a folk club. There’s a lot to admire on Yarrow, both from the band’s playing and from Ryan Boldt’s song writing. The woods are lovely dark and deep.
Yarrow is out now on Six Shooter Records. Order via Amazon.