Folk music over the years has come to mean something at once specific and indefinable. On the one hand, it’s an umbrella term for indigenous musical traditions from around the world, from the deserts of northern Africa to the thin air of the Andes to the hollers of Appalachia, and many more places besides. It’s also the label applied to modern-day singer/songwriters who favor acoustic instruments and plainspoken lyrics, to say nothing of graying beardos with ponytails fully prepared to argue about the authenticity of hammered dulcimer on updated arrangements of 19th-century songs from, say, Johnson County, Ky.
At its core, though, folk music is—has always been—less about musical form than narrative function, as a means of passing along stories, legends and calamitous news: “The Ballad of John Henry,” for example, or “Wasn’t That a Mighty Storm,” about the hurricane that leveled Galveston, Texas in 1900. Folk music is music of the people, and it is in that sense that Joseph O’Connell, who records as Elephant Micah, is a folk musician. As it happens, he’s also a trained folklorist. Those things are related, of course. “They’re kind of these parallel pursuits that come from the same root interests that have to do with growing up in a rural place and being around music and kind of puzzling over a lot of questions of cultural identity from a really young age,” O’Connell says.
That rural place is southern Indiana, where O’Connell grew up, and though it’s a setting for his new album Where in Our Woods, these eight new songs resonate far wider. Like Elephant Micah’s previous releases over the past 15 years, it’s a spare, subdued collection of songs with quiet vocals, hushed accompaniment and oblique lyrics that amplify everyday stories into legends, told in sidelong ways. Opener “By the Canal” feels like a bemused remembrance of landmarks that once loomed large in a youthful imagination, with O’Connell singing over intertwined acoustic guitars strumming descending patterns and the taut boom of a kick drum.
It has the feel of an intimate confidence, while other songs give the impression that O’Connell is a bystander observing the events he is relating, rather than the one steering them. “Albino Animals” blends three unrelated items from one edition of the local newspaper—about the killing of an albino deer, a meth-cooking couple who avoided prosecution and a rower attempting an ill-fated transatlantic passage—into one somber story that drifts by, inscrutable as woodsmoke against a heavy winter sky, while an acoustic guitar repeats a slow, mesmerizing circular riff.
Fauna is a common thread running through Where in Our Woods. “Demise of the Bible Birds,” a waltz-time tune featuring backing vocals from Will Oldham, is among the more ornate tracks on the album, with nylon-string guitar, pump organ and the tap-tap-tap of a snare drum played by O’Connell’s brother Matthew. It shares an inspiration with closing tune “Rare Beliefs,” a quietly shattering song about the late Wendell Hansen, an Indiana preacher who taught exotic birds to act out parables from scripture in his Bible Bird Show. O’Connell captures the oddity of such a thing with empathy and gentle reverence, unspooling a subtle vocal melody over a simple acoustic guitar part.
Birds also star in “Slow Time Vultures,” a hypnotic seven-and-a-half-minute track that never rises above a murmur. O’Connell picks out low guitar notes with the pattern of a heartbeat, and organ hums in the background while he conflates a mass migration of carrion birds with the first-ever implementation of Daylight Saving Time in parts of Indiana in 2005. In the best folk tradition, it’s strange enough it must have at least an element of truth, and it does. Even better is that someone is paying close enough attention to find the beauty in the idiosyncrasies that O’Connell chronicles on Where in Our Woods, and talented enough to preserve them in songs that are as essential as these.