Our latest entry in faerie-and-druid New Weird America folk comes from Come, Arrow, Come!, the debut album by sister-sister duo Festival. It fits right in with Language of Stone’s other artists, which include Greg Weeks, Sharon Van Etten, Mountain Home, and Orion Rigel Dommisse, and it bears the hallmarks of a host of other albums in the genre regrettably known as “freak-folk.” Those hallmarks, of course, being deconstructive studio experimentation (a la Sparklehorse) applied to pre-rock American and British folk traditions—or at least the idea of American and British folk traditions.
A bit of critical griping and clarification: As much as I loathe the “freak-folk” genre categorization,* yeah, I suppose it designated a moment, one that I felt a deep affinity to. The output of music categorized as such in that 2004-2008 era was, to me, as rich, fascinating, and affecting as any in recent times, perhaps second only to the post-rock movement of the early- to mid-90s. Bands and songwriters as diverse as the Tower Recordings, Nic Castro, Six Organs of Admittance, Charalambides, the Skygreen Leopards, and Sunburned Hand of the Man all released classics of the style. I count their efforts as some of my favorite records of all time.
Festival’s Come, Arrow, Come! is not at the level of a Dark Noontide, a Galaxies’ Incredible Sensual Transmission Field of the Tower Recordings, or a Headdress, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable in its own right. When listening to it, there’s a bit of a sense that the Powell sisters are doing a bit of opportunistic scene piggybacking, taking tried-and-true elements from other, greater New Weird America albums and suturing them together. Though that really sounds rather damning, trust me, it’s not. Festival, generally, does a superb job of blending together their influences and presenting something that’s very well-crafted, if not particularly original. When at their strongest, as they frequently are on Come, Arrow, Come!, Festival can put together some of the most eerie, doomy free folk around.
And their strongest definitely comes in a three-song stretch—”Zebulon,” “Bind Us All,” and “Return”—in the middle of the album, all of which explore the spookier, more unabashedly dramatic side of their sound. ”Zebulon” begins the sequence with an arresting blend of ominous drones, the Powells’ clear, high voices, and a mincing melodic figure. It leads into ”Bind Us All,” a breathtaking piece, the best thing on the album. It’s a deliberate, percussive slow-burner that depends entirely on the impressive melodic dexterity of the Powells’ singing. This brilliant run grows progressively more unsettling, culminating with the lengthy, cacophanous unraveling of “Return.” The song begins with simple, earnest guitar figure and ghostly, lonesome vocals. The effect is hypnotic, but instead of letting this play out, Festival opts to explode the song, unleashing a torrent of seesawing electric guitar squeals, dissonant caterwauls, and thundering percussion. It’s surprisingly heavy stuff, completely brave and frankly uncalled-for, and suggests that Festival is actually serious about their mossy darkness, not simply aping for aping’s sake.
…And that’s precisely why the album ends on a rather disappointing note. The remaining three songs, like the call-and-response sing-along stomper “Valentine,” follow safe hipster-pop tropes a little too closely for my blood.** I suppose I can see why Festival felt the need to lighten things up, but it would have been more daring and rewarding if they didn’t take the foot off the throat. It’s when Festival explores their Renfest roots that they seem strongest.
Overall, Come, Arrow, Come! is what it is, and that’s a sort of leavened, lightened version of Fern Knight. Which is high praise, I hasten to add. Sometimes you want your crown-of-daisies-wearing forest maidens to avoid full-on nightmare mode. Festival does a great job of that.
*FUCK YOU, PITCHFORK. FUCK YOU.
**With “Come Outside,” in particular, sounding like it was written and sung by a female Hamilton Leithauser doppelganger and fairly reeking of Williamsburg, making for a pretty deflating two-song conclusion to Come, Arrow, Come!