Hillfolk Noir. Pop Songs For Elk

It’s junkerdash time again folks as the ever excellent Hillfolk Noir unload another album of slightly unhinged old time music and set off on another tour of the UK commencing this weekend. They’ve been a Blabber’n’Smoke favourite ever since we heard their 2011 album Skinny Mammy’s Revenge while 2013’s What’s That Hat For set a standard for raw boned backwoods string band music.

On Pop Songs For Elk Hillfolk Noir remain a three piece with Travis Ward at the front end, writing the songs, playing guitar and banjo and singing with partner Alison M. Ward on banjo, saw, washboard and vocals and Michael P. Waite on bass. As is their norm they recorded the album live with no overdubs before it was mixed in mono creating a wonderful melange of strings and things that pours out of the speakers with a joyful clarity. Travis Ward tackles tradition with his songs sounding as if they could have been written anytime in the past 100 years although his lyrics are definitely contemporary. Jug band, talking blues, hillbilly and ragtime are all filtered through the Hillfolk Noir sieve with some exhilarating results.

They open with a stramash, guitars mauled before the eerie saw sound from Alison wails around the punk folk of North Idaho Zombie Rag allowing them to sound like a hillbilly Gun Club. It’s a tremendous opener, spooky and thrilling. Round I Sing/Mile On Up harks back to a formal string band dance number with Travis and Alison’s duetting not dissimilar to The Handsome Family as the lyrics range from religion to sniffing glue, one can imagine clog dancers gainfully dancing away while they try to comprehend the lyrical content with some disbelief. Poor Man’s Love Song is a delightful solo effort from Travis that would not shame the pen of Woody Guthrie and he goes solo again on the banjo plucked weirdness of Getting Late where he describes a rural community with everyone from the chickens to the mayor on some sort of drug. Getting high is the raison d’être of Sniffing Glue Blues, a simple song that has added space age reverb inviting comparisons to those sixties freak folk The Holy Modal Rounders and surely destined to end up on the playlist of the Dr. Demento radio show.

Elsewhere the band offer some solid licks with Uncle Jake a muscular jug band tale that starts off with a description of“a mean old man he washes his socks in a frying pan, you don’t want to go fisticuffs with Uncle Jake” while Little Red Caboose romps along with some glee as Waite’s bass powers the song along. Shimmy is old time rag music with the singer’s sister shimmying like jelly on a plate and delivered with a magical old time feel almost as if it were the soundtrack to an old Betty Boop cartoon.

All 12 songs here are gems which reinforce our belief that Hillfolk Noir are simply superb, running with an historical musical genre and banging it right up to date. While the album is of course recommended there’s an opportunity to see the Hillfolk Noir experience live over the next two weeks as they tour the UK and Ireland, dates here.

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