Much has been made of the folk revival of the past five years. The run on banjo and mandolin sales at your local music shop. The prevalence of flannel and facial hair. People relearning the joys of vocal harmonies. As with any popular musical revival, there’s plenty to be annoyed with, though I am generally pleased that the kids are taking an interest in a genre that’s older and deeper than most any other musical style one could delve into.
But it’s that depth — that dark, sorrowful magic from the old, weird America — that is often sorely missing from much new, contemporary folk music being produced these days. And it’s that darkness that is such a welcome, yet unsettling, presence on “Am I Born To Die?” the debut album from The Ghosts of Johnson City, a Portland-based folk ensemble. Banjo player and lead singer, Amos Libby, harmonium player Erik Winter, guitarist Doug Porter and baritone ukulele player Erik Neilson — all members or former members of bands like Johnny Cremains, Covered in Bees, Rural Ghosts, Obkari and others — have clearly done their homework. Their love, understanding of and respect for the folk tradition both American and European is clear from the first track, a nearly seven-minute version of an obscure, early 19th century hymn about death. The fact that they put the least accessible song on the album as the opener says a lot about this band. They aren’t kidding around.
For an album that is about death — even has “die” in the title — it’s of course a rather grim affair. After 16 songs about death by drowning, beating, gunfire, poisoning, stabbing, alcohol or any other possibility on the bingo board of unfortunate demises, you’re not exactly in the mood to party. But nor is that the point; “Am I Born To Die?” is meant to inspire feelings both tender and shuddersome; to transport you to the worlds that each song comes from, be it Civil War battlefields (the lyrical sadness of “Faded Coat of Blue” and the devastating “Rebel Soldier”), the misty hills of Appalachia (“Down In the Willow Garden”), or the logging camps of Maine (“Jack Monroe”). Libby has a beautiful, soulful, mournful voice, well-suited to the type of morbid songs selected for the album. He doesn’t put on some sort of fake Southern accent or other affectation; he sings from the heart.
Not every song is a somber affair, however. The rollicking “Darling Corey” chugs along like a train, with the kind of attitude everyone from Nick Cave to bands like 16 Horsepower or The Gun Club copped from the original punk rockers — those bad-living men and women who sang those songs originally. The album-closing “Last Old Shovel” is a knee-slapping bluegrass song, in direct opposition to the album-opening title track. Even their take on “Wayfaring Stranger,” a song that has been covered literally thousands of times in the past 200 years, is infused with a kind of dark energy; less of a hymn; more of a howl.
Production-wise, “Am I Born To Die?” sounds unlike any other album to come out of Maine in recent years — there’s a certain spooky atmosphere throughout, with just the right balance of reverb and crispness. Erik Winter’s harmonium winds its way through every song, a kind of spiritual drone that is more of a mimicking of the wind, or wails, or of nature itself, than it is a rhythmic musical element. The overall effect is one of something — I don’t know what — that transcends earthly matter. Death, as another lover of the old, weird America once said, is not the end.
The Ghosts of Johnson City will play a CD release show this Saturday, Oct. 24, with Welterweight and Dark Hollow Bottling Company, at Portland House of Music and Events.