Jonas Friddle mentions a momentous day of “when I hit my stride” in two songs on Belle de Louisville as somewhere far off. I’m happy to report to Mr. Friddle that the day is here: Belle de Louisville and its companion Synco Pony show him in full form. Folk artists appear all the time, but a truly new voice in folk is a much rarer event. That’s why readers everywhere (and Friddle!) should rejoice: these two albums can and should put Friddle in the conversation with established leaders like Josh Ritter, Joe Pug and Justin Townes Earle.
Yes, I did mention two albums above: Friddle effectively released a double album as a debut. You can’t say audacious any louder than that (except, I guess, with a triple album). And instead of being bloated and selfish, both are wonderfully refreshing listens. You can even listen to them back to back for just over an hour of harmonious, melodic, banjo-led, instrument-stuffed, clever folk tunes. I’ve done it several times in my travels this summer.
They do have slightly different personalities, but they add up to a whole for Friddle. Belle de Louisville is a bit more personal and emotional, showcasing a wry sentimentality. Opener “A String to a Bell” has a major key banjo base, but legato strings and vocals are layered over it for a pensive feel. “It’s a handful of give me/a mouthful of much obliged/it greets me in the evenin’ and the mornin, when I rise,” Friddle’s lithe, warm tenor relates. This push and pull of sadness (the hunger is always there) and contentment (the hunger is always fed) goes all through Belle.
The title track has a beautiful vocal melody, while “Jordan Am a Hard Road to Travel” showcases his hoedown folk abilities that will be revisited with the hilarious “Women, They’re So Small and Fancy.” “Rockingham Cindy” is the killer cut here, with Friddle forlornly expressing his love for a wild woman that won’t stop drinking whiskey; it’s played on guitar with a slide instead of his more common banjo, and it’s evocative as anything I’ve heard this year. Every tune is worth hearing, for its clear and strong melodies, satisfying arrangements and incredibly solid yet varied song structures.
Synco Pony dials back his emotive side and plays up his observational/critical/protest side. Belle did have “Montcoal, West Virginia” as a protest tune against big coal, but it was an emotive appeal instead of a critical one. Similarly, Synco Pony has the touching “The Ballad of Babyface and Too Tall Sue,” which is a love song by way of third party storytelling (instead of introspective emoting). This critical lens enables tunes like “Wall Street Rag” (self-explanatory), “George Walker” (a clever tune addressed empathetically to Dubya), and “Tom Brokaw Blues” (a lament for the state of our world via a critique of the news we want to hear).
In addition to the critical lens, the music on Synco Pony features less stereotypical folky strum and focuses more on ragtime, blues and fingerpicked melodies. Album highlight “Boredom” is the best example of the dichotomy: Friddle lays on the irony thick, but not in a sarcastic or mean way. “We may all die of boredom when we stand before the Lord/singing, ‘Hallelujah, I got the highest score,” he sings in the chorus. Friddle’s from Chicago, and “Boredom” tells a story about the Cubs–since Friddle tells us that he likes the Bears in his live preface to “The Hipster,” I’m guessing that he’s poking fun at himself as much as other Chicago sports fans fictional and real. It’s that sort of reflexive charm that gets me about Friddle’s music: it tones down the seriousness with playfulness and vice versa. No matter what he’s doing musically, he keeps the ship at an even keel (without turning boring). It’s a delicate dance, but Friddle nails it.
The overall winner on the two albums is “When I Hit My Stride,” the final track on Belle de Louisville. Friddle strums his guitar chords, accompanied by a thumping tom and call-and-response vocals. The melody is infectious, and the lyrics are about something we can all relate to: we’re gonna get “there” someday, when it all goes right. When it breaks out into a round with Friddle singing his tune and the rest of the group clapping and singing “This Little Light of Mine,” it becomes downright exuberant–and then the New Orleans jazz band breaks out. It’s the perfect encapsulation of Friddle’s magic: a bunch of people together, acknowledging the difficulties of life and exuberantly celebrating the possibilities past that. I listen to music for that reminder, and Friddle provides it in spades. I said it yesterday, but it applies again today: if that’s not an album you want to hear, this blog can’t help you very much. You need to hear these albums. They’re incredible, and easily contenders for best of the year.