Three folk songs that will stop you in your tracks

by David Lappin

“Safety Net” by Brother James is one of those songs that upon first listen, I had to pause and rewind. And then repeat. There’s a lulling quality to the track, and just as I felt the music carry me to a state of calm, I would hear an arresting lyric and stop, thinking, did he really just say that? The song contemplates the cyclical nature of pain in the narrator’s life, first with a traumatic entrance into the world—born with an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck—and second, a present suicidal ideation as an adult. It’s a well-written song with lyrics like, “Could that which wrapped around my neck/ And that which gave me life/Much more quickly be my death.” Brother James does an impressive job of writing a dark story that’s enveloped in a tenderness of a mother and son relationship and the universal need for safety. The narrator—addressing his mother—sings, “So if I cut the cord, would you hold me like you did?” The singing is piercing. The production, simple but quite good. Listening to my first introduction of Brother James, I drew an initial comparison to Sufjan Stevens, with his doubled vocals and a cinematic quality to folk music. But it was the story Brother James told that made the track for me.

Dylan Dunlap’s latest release, “Serotonin,” opens with an earnest statement that hovers over the warm tone from an electric guitar: “Twenty-five candles, not sure how much more I can handle.” The song takes on a difficult task—to be sincere but not sentimental, emotional but not melodramatic. The guitar continues, an emotive loop that anchors this well-produced, beautifully arranged track. It has the honesty found in the folk/singer-songwriter tradition, yet the melody is hooky and the chorus is something we might hear in a top 40 track. Dunlap does a fine job of normalizing depression and anxiety, singing, “Don’t treat me like I’m broken/ I’m just low on serotonin.” In what’s been a recent wave of young, talented songwriters releasing folk-inspired pop songs, “Serotonin” will surely stand out.

Tristan Gregory Smith – “Yellow Jackets”
Music like this (we’ll call it a folky, nostalgic, summertime tune) is deceptive in its nature of being sad. And that’s the thing about nostalgia—it’s an ache for home, a longing for the past. The melody in Tristan Gregory Smith’s “Yellow Jackets” is playful. A guitar—the strings finger picked—carries the lyrics along bouncing, understated drums. Smith reflects on a simpler life, writing with details all too familiar to childhood. The twinge that follows a joyful memory is best expressed in the chorus as Smith sings, “And all our memories become someone’s fond farewell.” Still, there’s comfort and warmth to the song and a compelling texture to the sound. This song will fit in nicely in a playlist of modern folk with artists like Gregory Alan Isakov and Iron & Wine.

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