It’s hard to reinvent the wheel. Heck, it’s hard to effectively retread the wheel. It’s a problem folk music has long struggled with—how does a genre that intentionally avoids modernity stay modern? That’s why Americana Hotel, the latest record from Seattle’s Ali Marcus, is so impressive. Seven albums into her career, Marcus still manages to make her brand of simple folk music sound fresh in a genre that often feels like a relic.
There’s a casual effortlessness to Americana Hotel’s sound. Marcus’s voice is soft, sweet, and clear, straddling the line between singing and sing-talking. The instrumental backing flows like a laid-back down-home jam session, with various instruments (banjo, harmonica, fiddle, etc.) popping up when needed but never overstaying their welcome. It’s an organic feeling that works whether Marcus is singing about her grandparents during the Great Depression ("The Ballad of Helen and Bernie") or playing an old-fashioned folk protest song (remember those?) like "American Soil."
But what makes Americana Hotel stand out is Marcus’s idiosyncrasy. While she can craft old folk narratives, her music stands out the most when she strays lyrically into the modern realm. Marcus’s rallying cry for the misunderstood dreamer musicians, "Of Homes and Loved Ones," drops allusions in a style reminiscent of Kimya Dawson of Juno fame (it’s not often “Hoagy Carmichael” or “Puff the Inconsolable Dragon” are used as end rhymes). "The Windmill Song" focuses on wind turbines and has an entire verse dedicated to Al Gore. “Trash Day” literally uses the lack of a trash day in an apartment complex as a way to look fondly to carefree days of the past. The best part is that none of it seems forced; it’s Marcus’s natural character shining through.
Folky Americana music has long been stuck in a distant past, some idealistic time gone by. Through her own inherent quirks, Marcus modernizes the style without sacrificing its soul.
July 1 at 7, Hopvine Pub, free