Modern indie folk is so damn saccharine, it sounds like diabetes. Thankfully, Phox ain’t got time for that.
Let’s take the very first line off of track number five, Evil: “Face deep in my best friend’s knees / telling me you don’t want to hurt me.” Holy shit, you’ll never hear The Head And The Heart say something so incredibly forward. But it’s a situation that’ll surely be familiar to anyone who’s sexually active. Or what about Slow Motion’s “Everything I do / I do in slow motion / I don’t know what to say”? It’s followed up by a woodwind solo (no banjos or fiddles!), but that’s a pretty succinct statement to sum up the paralysing breathlessness that comes with being unable to speak in front of a love interest, or even act upon one’s own life.
Outspokenness is the key appeal to lead singer Monica Martin, and without her, Phox’s self-titled debut album would not be nearly as enjoyable. But that’s not to say that the rest of the band isn’t a rocking (as much as indie folk can be) group of guys: Kingfisher is a wonderfully capricious track with some steadily building semi-orchestral backings that aren’t self-absorbed in the slightest. Think of Sufjan Stevens‘ work on Michigan – gentle and effervescent tracks that belie an extraordinary musicianship.
Also worth noting are Shrinking Violets, which culminates in a straight out gorgeous climax and ends with a playful improvised guitar lick, and the seven-minute long Raspberry Seed. Phox are quite cohesive, and that’s even more impressive given that they’re a six-piece. There’s an authenticity in each track that’s akin to Iron And Wine. It makes sense given the fact that they recorded the album in Justin Vernon’s (of Bon Iver fame) Wisconsin home. The ballad soundscapes are all there.
Martin’s delivery is not one to be missed. She’d certainly give Linda Perhacs and Thus Owls a run for their money as she sings with a feather-light voice that conceals emotional intensity. Occasionally she contorts her words a bit too much and takes a bit of power out of the lyrics simply because it’s hard to hear what she’s saying. Folk music can’t get away with that as much as other genres.
The folk imagery occasionally gets a bit too wrapped up in itself for its own good. Anyone who knows a sliver of Greek mythology will shiver at the metaphor of Satyr And The Faun; hearing “and so I have to run / to run / to run” is a bit horrifying. It’s a major faux pas; the instrumentals have a fairy-tale quality that’s observed when baroque folk is done right, but the lyrics are just too unsettling given how earnestly lovey-dovey they’re delivered, and it doesn’t seem intentional at all given the nature of the rest of the album.
Noble Heart and Raspberry Seed have some incredible instrumental sections, with the former falling into a Be My Baby-beat. The line between pretension and earnestness is a fine one indeed, and for the most part Phox avoids that pitfall. But Satyr And The Faun is a spectacular example of folk references done wrong; if it’s ironic, then it’s even more cringeworthy. 1936 has a similar but smaller issue: the old-timey references are precious and all, but it’s still hard to figure out exactly what’s going on beneath all the allusions. Martin is simply better when she’s straightforward.
The Wisconsin sextet have the guts to make some amazingly direct indie folk, which makes for their most powerful songs. Martin’s voice is simply fantastic. She injects a warm bit of buttered soul directly into the veins of what could have been a very sugary affair. However, Phox do have a bit of soul-searching and research to do so they don’t repeat Satyr And The Faun, and the metaphorical lyrics cover up some of the band’s natural talent as songwriters. As Martin says, “brevity is my goddamn right,” and who couldn’t agree with an attitude as kickass as that.