Here is the mystery of Seattle’s Cave Singers: They never listened to much folk music, they never intended to play folk music, and more importantly, their guitarist never picked up the instrument until recently. Yet, this strange trio is writing and performing some of the most hypnotizing folk music we have today.
One listen to Invitation Songs, however, and you’re ready to call bullshit on them. It sounds like an updated version of the Anthology of American Folk Music. Not the graduate-student, learned interpretations of folk music circa 1962, but folk music approached by way of punk rock. It's sparse, melodic, creepy, and alluring, like the widow mourning graveside in Johnny Cash’s “Long Black Veil”. Guitarist Derek Fudesco's bottom-end acoustic work sounds like Mississippi John Hurt's soft, rolling finger plucks. Singer Pete Quirk's appealingly nasal voice simultaneously echoes Arlo Guthrie and a mosquito's buzz. And drummer Marty Lund plays like he's slapping a newspaper on a kitchen table.
Though Quirk spent time in Seattle post-punk group Hint Hint, Lund in Cobra High, and Fudesco as bassist for Pretty Girls Make Graves and the legendary Murder City Devils, maybe they’ve been folk artists all along and we just haven’t been open to the idea.
The band maintains that they never made a conscious effort to play a certain 'style' of music, and that, besides the odd Dylan record, their favorite bands are still the Replacements, the Pixies, Fleetwood Mac. With that in mind, I do believe it was Big Bill Broonzy who quipped: “All music is folk music.”
Invitation Songs is the Cave Singers’ debut. It was recorded in Vancouver, British Columbia by Colin Stewart (PGMG, Black Mountain), and its title is appropriate; it is one of the warmest and most welcoming records of 2007. Each track is coated in a dense atmosphere that feels humid but not stifling. The shuffle-stomp rhythms on “Seeds of Night” and “Dancing on our Graves” recall Civil War marches, highlighting Lund’s innate abilities. Elsewhere, on “Royal Lawns” harmonicas sigh and echo back like ghosts in abandoned railway cars. The brooding, washboard-driven “Called” is kin to Ugly Casanova’s chain-gang musings, and Quirk’s mid-song yelps don’t sound planned, but rather like the ultimate summoning of his inner turmoil.
“Helen”, a classic tale of a long lost lover (“Helen, you’re eyes are frozen in my brain”), employs a wavering synth to create a Martian blues vibe. On the rustic rock-flavored “Oh Christine”, another strummy song of a love just out of reach, Quirk takes on an almost jazz-poet tone. “I saw you smoking in the bar just the other night/If I saw you right...I saw you drinking in the bar just the other day/And what’s that I heard you say?” Nothing fancy, but he sings as if he is conjuring memories so personal he has to force them through his pinched teeth.
You see, the Cave Singers' music demands attention. You’ll throw this record on, maybe in the morning while you’re getting ready for work. Then, in the middle of the day, one of Quirk’s lyrics or Fudesco’s riffs will pop into your head, the way a Townes Van Zandt song does. You won’t be able to shake it. You’ll go home and listen to it agai n. Pretty soon, Invitation Songs will have worked its way into your subconscious and become the soundtrack to this moment in your life. Invitation Songs will remain a part of you forever.
--Brian J. Barr, Seattle, Washington