Boston-based folk group Joy Kills Sorrow’s newest EP Wide Awake promises just what its title states. It awakens yours senses, your capability to dream though music, and keeps you awake till the last drone of the bass fades. The driving rhythms conjure travel in my mind. From the first electrified chords of mandolin on track one, an energetic piece titled “Was It You,” I find myself transported to the passenger car of an old train, racing down the tracks as Emma Beaton’s flawless voice soars above the rumble, “Wide awake and searching in the shadows of the places where we’ve been/but the walls aren’t giving any answers and the sighs never end…” The track showcases the dynamic mastery of mandolin virtuoso Jacob Jolliff (who holds the coveted position of 2012 national mandolin champion) as he fleshes out a mean solo in the middle. But he is not the only wizard in this acclaimed string band—the guitarist Matthew Arcara, banjo picker Wes Corbett, their new bassist Zoe Guigueno, and lead vocalist and cellist Emma Beaton, are all award winning instrumentalists.
All songs on this EP are original with the exception of “Such Great Heights,” the techno pop hit from The Postal Service. They’ve executed a vigorous folk rendition that elevates the song to a whole other level, where my own imagination now fastens me into an old wooden roller coaster and barrels me up and down the towering tracks, breathless, excited. The atonal, waffling beginning of “Get Along” suddenly transforms into an upbeat, syncopated jazz jaunt that showcases the flexibility of Beaton’s vocals and Jolliff’s improvisational skills. “Gold In The Deep” is a laid back, easy-going ballad with a lovely, delicate banjo solo and soothing vocal harmonies, while ghosts of Appalachia steal into “Working For The Devil,” a gritty tune that is also very bluesy, jazzy, current. But I think my favorite track is the last—“The Enlistee.” It’s one of those songs that you can crank up on your stereo while you sink into the trenches along with the character, who has stolen the narrator’s heart, but the two are star-crossed due to distance and the nature of his work. The “world” beat underneath (actually produced by the string instruments) helps set a dark and moody atmosphere for the vocals to haunt. But it also resembles an ocean tune in some ways. The ebb and flow of the instruments makes you feel you are rocking on waves aboard an old ship. Which brings me back to the theme I drew from this album—motion, transport, vitality—all elements that will keep the listener mesmerized, dreaming, while still very “wide awake.”
I do question the “folk” label ascribed to the album. To call this album “folk,” in my mind, is to take the folk genre down a similar path that country has gone. There are a whole lot of country fans out there who gripe about its new sound, and clamor for “old country.” Country has strayed so far into the pop genre that it is hard, at times, to tell the difference between the two, and all kinds of artists are coming out of the woodwork and claiming that “country” label to snag “country” fans, yet in my ear, sound nothing like country. This album certainly has elements of folk, namely bluegrass–the instruments are certainly “folk” in classification, and there is stellar picking in the album, to be sure. Yet, in my opinion, the complex chord progressions, the irregular rhythms and the changing of meter in more than one song, lyrics that are more “pop” than “folk,” Beaton’s vocal stylings, and the general melting of so many styles like blues, jazz, pop, “new” grass…is this really folk, or something else? I feel like new territory is being explored, in a way, and I don’t know that the folk blanket extends far enough to cover this album. Wide Awake does not conjure down-home folks sitting on a front porch sharing easy-to-sing-along-with tunes. Its not traditional in any sense of the word, and that’s fine. What it does remind me of is pop singers who take elements of folk to add to their music for flavor. Like Bruce Hornsby, for instance, whose earlier “pop” albums were highly influenced by jazz, yet in some songs you’d hear banjo and other instruments to give it that “Southern” flavor. But you can’t call him “folk.” And just because an album does not have percussion and contains “folky” instruments, doesn’t mean you can label it “folk” either. And I don’t think bluegrass bands would enjoy sharing their genre with this band, either. Bluegrass is typically three chords with a lot of fiery-fast finger-picking. This album contains fiery-fast picking, no doubt. But the artsy progressions are way beyond bluegrass, way beyond country, and to me, way beyond folk. Unless folk is heading in that blurred direction where “anything goes.” And if that is the case, I’m a little disturbed. To me, folk was never about virtuosity, perfection, popularity, or complexity. It is about history, legacy, cause, simplicity, message. I don’t get that in this album. But I do get a good aural workout, mental stimulation, and enjoyment, and that is enough for me to recommend it, whether it truly has earned a “folk” stamp or not.