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Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007 08:06 pm

A matter of timing

Poor Noah Georgeson may have waited too long

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Noah Georgeson Find Shelter (Plain Recordings)
Untitled Document W hen it comes to zeitgeist, timing is all, and the so-called freak-folk scene, with which Noah Georgeson is perhaps unfairly associated, is due for a backlash. Already blogosphere wags are mocking Devendra Banhart’s dirty bare feet, the same feet they were kissing a year ago; how much longer before they sink their fangs into the golden-haired darling of the movement, the prodigiously gifted Joanna Newsom, whose recent Ys turned otherwise snarky crit-geeks into slobbering sycophants? (It didn’t hurt, of course, that Newsom is ridiculously pretty; as her recent press photos prove, she looks adorable even with an animal carcass perched on her head.) Freak-folk, one suspects, reached its apogee with Ys. On to the next microgenre! Georgeson, Newsom’s ex-boyfriend and the producer of her first album, 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender, has lousy timing. Even though his recent debut, Find Shelter, has been in the works since 1999, it’s getting press now, just as the chattering classes are running out of new ways to describe eccentric acoustic music made by bearded twentysomethings and their poetess consorts. Georgeson wrote these songs while living in a tiny San Francisco apartment with Newsom and her ginormous harp; she wrote most of the songs for her first album there, too, but, unlike Georgeson, who’s been busy producing Banhart and (proto-freak) folk legend Bert Jansch, as well as playing guitar with Vetiver, she got her damn record out in a reasonable amount of time, well before the bandwagon ground to a halt. It might have enhanced his cred if he hadn’t waited so long, but it wouldn’t have made for a better record. Find Shelter is a sumptuous blend of virtuosic playing and uncommon writing, an album poised midway between highbrow art music and hum-in-the-shower folk-pop. Like Newsom, and unlike the great majority of their indie-rock contemporaries, Georgeson is an actual musician — the kind who can read standard music notation and discuss the finer points of Morton Subotnick’s oeuvre. While earning an M.A. in music at Mills College, he studied with composers Pauline Oliveros and Alvin Curran, both major heavies in experimental-music circles. He’s a classically trained flamenco guitarist and a more-than-competent pianist who wrote, scored, arranged, recorded, and produced Find Shelter in addition to singing and playing most of the instruments. (For the remaining parts, he conducted the Kite Hill Chamber Orchestra.) He has a tuneful, somewhat stagy baritone reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright’s and Neil Hannon’s (Divine Comedy); when he dips into the bottom of his register, he sounds a little like the great John Cale. Add some elliptical but always interesting (and sometimes quite funny) lyrics to the mix, and you’ve got yourself a winning combination indeed — a bit lofty, maybe, but never obtrusively so. Innovatively arranged and sensitively sequenced, all of the CD’s dozen tracks are excellent, which makes it hard to choose favorites. “Walking on Someone Else’s Name,” a loping cowboy-glam reverie about the anxiety of influence, combines painstakingly erudite lyrics (who, besides his word-drunk ex, would dare to sing about isthmuses and archipelagos?) with sun-dappled synths, shadowy woodwinds, and fingerstyle guitar. “Build and Work,” a critique of the Protestant work ethic, intersperses a spacey organ with hard-panned cymbal clashes and syncopated handclaps. With its somber horns and pregnant silences, the stately “Priests of Cholera” brings to mind Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, whereas the next track, “Glorious Glory,” mixes grunting horns, intricate guitar, and curlicued piano to create an infectious avant-vaudeville ditty. If there’s any justice in the world, this beguiling debut will withstand the inevitable freak-folk backlash and reach those who care more about talent than trendiness.
Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.
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