Folk Innovation: A look back at “The Barr Brothers”

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Rating: 8.2/10

The wealth and diversity of music today can leave anyone overwhelmed and exhausted. This can be especially true for folk music, a genre that has its fair share of history, styles and stereotypes. To be original and innovative in today’s music scene is truly an amazing feat. “The Barr Brothers,” the group’s self-titled album that came out in 2011, attempts to transcend the genre’s tropes to make something truly unique. In many ways the group succeeds at just that, exploring various influences while curating a style all their own.

 

The sound of The Barr Brothers rests on an uneven balance of ambient texture, rolling lyrical delivery, and finger picked guitar. On songs such as “Ooh, Belle,” we get a taste of the sun-tinged folk pop they do so well. The four-part band mixes their voices into soft harmonies, creating a lite-folk atmosphere that coddles your heart. Although they could have built a whole album on such a sound, it seems The Barr Brothers are too adventurous for that.

 

The contrast on “The Barr Brothers” comes on tracks like “Give the Devil Back His Heart,” which burns with energy compared to much of the rest of the record. Electric guitar sizzles as lead singer Brad Barr wails slightly above his usual soft tone, betraying a tinge of desperation. The collected tone from previous songs wavers a bit, and the darkness begins to seep in:

 

“Sun take my pain to the East

Cause the day I made my frown

Final prayer for us

Oh he’s sleepin’

The devil is sleepin’

Give the devil back his heart”

 

It’s not crazy to think that The Barr Brothers have an obsession with the devil. Even “Ooh, Belle” references the king of darkness as Barr warns Belle to watch out for his satanic tricks. But there’s more. “The Devil’s Harp” is a haunting song of searching, finding, and returning to search again. Playing with rhythm and verse, it adds a bit of flair to the more serene folk songs that The Barr Brothers seem to churn out with ease.

“Old Mythologies,” a track that begs for repeat listens, plays with the ideas of stories and relationships. Quick rhymes and tight harmonies bounce effortlessly along lines of guitar that twist in and out of the rhythm of the lyrics:

 

“It’s probably now that I need you the most

When I’m one half child and the other ghost

And one of ’em wants to pull you close and the other to let you go

Time’s criminal love heart won

And love defies everyone

Inside my skin, a skeleton is warming up his act”

 

These clever lines add to the charm and wonder of “Old Mythologies.” The Barr Brothers expertly handle their lyrics throughout the album. Accessible and personal at times, they know just the right moment to pull the veil across the scene, leaving us with esoteric interpretations and double meanings. Such musings seem designed for multiple listens, asking us to interpret the lyrics from multiple perspectives. “Held My Head” does just that:

 

“And I peel the skin from off the glass

The blood stains wash away

I still can’t remember you, but I do know

That it’s raining and the blacktop is bleeding

Won’t someone please turn on the lights”

 

“Cloud (For Lhasa)” is a slow-burning, transcendent song, a shape-shifting dream that takes us outside of our bodies for an ecstatic moment. The slow roll of the song’s rhythm matches the feeling perfectly, and for a second I see the world from a cloud’s perspective. Barr’s voice smolders softly above the music with lines like “And some clouds leave grey tracks in the sky / But most of us are doing the best to float by.” It’s a wish, a fantasy, to be close to the ones we love. Despite this, we all float away one way or another.

 

“Let There Be Horses” sends us off with a soulful, almost-jazzy feel. Although stylistically different than much of the album, it fits in with aesthetic of The Barr Brothers. The group effortlessly moves from one sound to another, although they’re at their best with the rolling folk musings of “Old Mythologies” and “Cloud (For Lhasa).”

It’s an impressive first album from the Montreal group. Now we can look forward to their newest album this October, “Queens of the Breakers.”  

 

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