Like the title suggests, Quasi-Hymns, Murder-Ballads, and Tales of How the Hero Died, the latest offering from Columbia’s Stagbriar has many songs with dark connotations. The group, led by siblings Alex and Emily McCollum and rounded out by drummer Brandon Edwards and a few studio performers, deals in a post-modern folk rock sound that calls to mind ‘80s alternative artists like X, R.E.M., or Stan Ridgway more so than the current crop of cookie-cutter bands conducting business as usual with indie folk. The brother-sister team-up works well in their hands and it seems like the two, both singing lead and playing guitars and banjos, come from a shared vision of melancholy songs delivered in a beautiful folk/ roots narrative.
The sometimes conversational tone of the dual vocals is striking; the first song “Tom” details an unhappy life and the vocals tell the tale in a way both detached and intimately connected to the subject matter. Both siblings have great, distinctive voices and their unison singing is a collective instrument unto itself. The amazing lyrics throughout the whole album are both descriptive and elusive, poetic and evocative, especially on “The S.S. Here We Go”, which has a melodic composition that could easily translate into radio play. Some tracks almost delve into post-rock territory like “Forgot the Sun” or “A Streak of Bad Luck”, giving the listener a progressive folk experience that is unusual and unique to the band. “Eyes Alive” has an ambient quality, with almost a cappella singing leading into echo-effects and multi-layered recording of the vocals. There are even two songs recorded at Alex’s house, one of which, “What Happened (to the dead)” starts with a great Emily solo vocal and the incidental background noises like car horns honking in the neighborhood add a natural percussion that just feels real.
The whole record makes sense as a piece, but it goes way outside of preconceived notions of “folk”. It is just that expansive and we are lucky to have local musicians like Stagbriar creating art that is obviously deeply personal, yet accessible by a wide variety of listeners. It is pretty amazing to think that they have only been together for a year or so. Here’s hoping they stick with us for much longer.
Recommended if you like: X, R.E.M., Lucinda Williams
Sean Knight is a native South Carolinian who has spent his life bouncing back and forth between SC and Texas, playing in bands you probably never heard of in both states and stinking up open-mic nights in the Low Country for many years. He plays, collects, listens to and probably spends too much of his life obsessing over music.