Josephine Foster, This Coming Gladness

Absolutely gorgeous album of radiant psychedelic folk from the extraordinarily talented Foster.  Recent work by Foster’s spiritual cousin Marissa Nadler has traced an arc from the overtly folkish stylings of her first two records to the sun- and acid-drenched touches of her third, Bird on the Water.  Foster, it seems, is on a parallel journey; having started out as a straight-up folk singer, she has gradually widened her vision to bring in the harder edges of electric guitar and drums, to mesmerising effect.

None of this is new, of course.  Folk rock was arguably invented in 1965, when Columbia producer Tom Wilson took Simon & Garfunkel’s filigree folk song “The Sound of Silence” and revamped it by adding electric lead guitar and percussion.  In the same year Dylan plugged in for the first time at the Newport Folk Festival, ushering in a period of anti-rock turbulence among the folkie crowd that would culminate a year later in the infamous cry of “Judas!”  What Foster and Nadler are doing, however, is closer in spirit to the two essential late ‘60s Fairport Convention LPs Unhalfbricking and Liege & Lief.  The genius of Fairport was to make the traditional sound thrillingly modern and the modern soberingly traditional; it’s a feat shared by This Coming Gladness, which despite the fact that its ten songs are all composed by Foster, nevertheless imparts that deliciously disconcerting blend of the ancient and the contemporary.

Foster’s gifted fellow musicians, Victor Herrero on lead guitar and Alex Neilson on drums, are essential to the mood of sustained melancholy that grips the record.  Herrero’s guitar work is unfailingly direct, with languid drawn-out lines that occasionally erupt into choppy, acidic riffing.  Neilson, meanwhile, is a revelation.  He’s done plenty of great work with such people as Will Oldham, Ben Chasny, Jandek and David Tibet, but I’ve never before heard him being given as much space to lend his quiet authority to the music as he gets here.  Focusing largely on tom-toms and cymbals, Neilson’s percussive attack is rolling and druggy: a telling counterpoint to the grim sense of psychedelic disquiet imparted by Foster’s soprano.

That voice inhabits these songs with a tender, voluptuous grace.  Opener “The Garden of Earthly Delights” sets the tone perfectly with its sinister pull and extended vocal cadences; here and indeed throughout the record, there’s a kind of fascinated surprise that imparts an intimate and immediate quality reminiscent of the poetry of Emily Dickinson.  “Waltz of Green” starts out as a courtly love story, Foster picking off notes from her harp like rose petals; the entry of Neilson and Herrero, though, sends the song spinning out of the tradition and towards the bleakly solipsistic.  Elsewhere, “Second Sight” sounds like a prayer of blazing contrition:

“All my fears fade like fire
drenched in the drippings of my eyes
Almighty Lord, lord of love
bless us as we walk in our darkest hour”

Her outward poise flecked with human vulnerability, Josephine Foster has created a work that radiates unfashionable optimism in the face of uncertainty and loss.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 18, 2009)

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