Run a finger over the pulse of contemporary folk music in 2009 and the prognosis isn’t exactly healthy. The pioneers of the freak-folk scene of the early 2000s have either changed tack completely or gone very quiet. Devendra Banhart’s messy Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon sounded like a death knell for the genre, and it’s become less common to hear outright folk signifiers in the glut of new music emerging on either side of the Atlantic.
Minnesotan Anni Rossi is a rare exception to this rule, although her music is far from full on folk. In fact, it could be argued that she’s based her entire sound on “Man-Size Sextet” from PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, with its screeching violins and cheerless dolor. There’s a lightness of touch to Rossi’s music that would be anathema to Harvey, but they share a similar love of jarring disharmony and for flooding their music with acres of space. It’s no surprise, then, to find Rid of Me’s Steve Albini at the controls of Rockwell, Rossi’s debut album.
Rossi possesses the kind of swooping vocal range that can suddenly swirl into a whimsical high on “Machine” or remain on an even downbeat keel on “Air Is Nothing.” Most of her songs follow a steady formula, beginning with disconsolately crooned vocals over a plucked guitar or tenderly stroked violin. As the song progresses, drums are introduced, the beat picks up and Rossi adds elements of sonic discoloration that really make her music stand out from the rapidly diminishing freak-folk pack.
There are a few exceptions to this blueprint: “Ecology” plays around with house music rhythms, and “Living in Danger” is an unlikely cover of a song originally performed by Europopsters Ace of Base. Rossi has more in common with likeminded experimentalists such as Scout Niblett or Kristen Hersh than she does with traditional folkies such as Linda Thompson or Vashti Bunyan. The whirling discordant violins combined with Rossi’s otherworldly vocals in “Venice” recall Hersh at the peak of her powers, while the odd tempo changes in “Deer Hunting Camp 17” are exactly the kind of moves that make Niblett’s music so fascinating.
When Rossi plays it straight on “Living in Danger” it’s easy to imagine her courting the same kind of audience that flocks to relatively conventional female singer-songwriters such as Feist or St. Vincent. But Rossi’s love of jolting her audience out of their comfort zones via a torrent of grazed violins and lyrics about freezer boxes suggest that she’s taking her music somewhere far more creative. Rockwell is a promising debut, and she’ll be wise to stick to the road less traveled on future excursions.