There are various schools of thought when it comes to folk music. Woody Guthrie leads the traditionalists. The Dylan school is all cryptic lyrics and chunky chords. There’s the Nick Drake school, which is quiet, pensive, and emotive. The Sufjanites pack their songs full of instruments. There’s the freak-folk Banhart followers, which are just out of their minds. And then there’s the Joseph Arthur school, which is plaintive lyrics and lots of pop influence. No folk artist can escape the influence of these artists.
Jacob Furr falls squarely in the Joseph Arthur school. His songs are definitely folk-laden, but have a lot of pop influences. The strumming is smooth, the recording is tight, and the songwriting is structured in concise pop structures more than the meandering, free-form folk odysseys of other artists. His voice is warm and inviting; no creaking, breaking or howling here. These seven tunes on The Only Road are very emotive, but not hysterical or pre-occupied with their own emotionality.
In short, these are honest songs that are enjoyable. They don’t belabor the point, and they don’t make it cryptic or inaccessible. “Many Times” is about being lonely on the road, and its musical echoes of Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” only accentuate the point that being free and on your own is not always all that it’s cracked up to be. Tom Waits would have been proud to write “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” as the eerie sway and low-slung plod invoke an atmosphere of danger, dark alleys and more. Furr’s invocation of Jewish legend and religion (“going over river Jordan”) makes the song even more foreign and thus all the more interesting.
Furr’s command of melody on “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” is another element that helps the song succeed. His vocal melodies, carried by his calm and inviting voice, are some of the longest-sticking remnants after the album is done.
Other than “Stranger,” the highlight here is “Where Are You Going?” The song expertly combines all the elements that Furr is best at: solid songwriting conveying honest emotion, a memorable vocal line, and an inviting atmosphere. It’s the type of song that fits in the emotional climax of TV shows, and I mean that as high praise.
Also in “Where Are You Going,” he delivers his best lyrical line. The lyrics in The Only Road are clear, concise, and, in comparison to other folk artists, not something to write home about. But he delivers a crushing set in the middle of this song: “She said why are you flying?/Cause it’s faster than a bus/There’s no stops along the long way./What became of us?” In the midst of the mundane conversation he’s relating, he drops in the whole point of the song, then jumps off again, ready for the next lyric. The stark contrast and particular delivery made me take notice from the very first time I heard it, and that’s a good thing.
The Only Road is a good debut. Furr has established himself as a strong songwriter in the vein of Joseph Arthur and Josh Rouse. He can strengthen his lyrics (and, in folk, that’s a big consideration), but the musicianship is tight. If you’re interested in folk that will please your ears and tickle your emotions, Jacob Furr should be in your near future. And seeing as you can get his album in a “pay-what-you-want” scheme, you really should.