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Andy Ulseth loves folk music, but much of the current Mumford-powered folk-pop explosion doesn't interest him.
"Most popular folk music nowadays is frustrating to me because it feels like it has never evolved," claims the 27-year-old. "People are singing about the same things now that they were in the 1920s. It just feels kind of stunted."
A compact and confident presence during an early January meet-up with City Pages at St. Paul's Grand Central, the lifelong Minnesotan gave himself the challenge of crafting folk records more rooted in current experience and contemporary life.
FAIR OAKS play their CD-release show with Louis and the Hunt on Saturday, January 18, at Icehouse; 612-276-6523
"Rather than, you know, 'I've been working on the railroad all the live long day,'" he explains. "I thought to myself, 'What is something that was 'folkie' 80 years ago but is still relevant today?' And to me that was river life."
Ulseth's obsession with the Mighty Mississippi ultimately birthed his Fair Oaks project, and an exceptional debut album, This Is the River. While his 2011 solo debut showed plenty of promise, the freshly formed quintet expands Ulseth's musical palette to great effect with French horn and trumpet cameos courtesy of Cloud Cult's Sarah Perbix, impressive six-string shredding by guitarist Eric Carlson, and gorgeous harmony vocals from Ulseth's fiancée, Molly Manning.
The arrangements echo sumptuous indie acts like Fanfarlo and Typhoon, while Ulseth's reedy tenor calls to mind Colin Meloy and the Decemberists. He's heard that comparison since he started playing local stages seven years ago, and always takes it as a compliment.
"I don't think lyrically or content-wise we're actually all that similar," says the avowed fan of the Oregon group. "To me the Decemberists are sort of defined by Victorian romanticism, along with the great melodies and arrangements, of course. I don't sing about ghosts of still-born children haunting chimney sweeps. But I do try and have a similarly writerly approach to songwriting, so I'm hoping that's the commonality that people are seeing."
This Is the River's blend of jangly rock and orchestral pop is very much en vogue, but its lyrical depth and consistent focus are in far shorter supply. Explorations of the natural world on "See What the Sun Gave" ("We are awakened by the sound/Of oscillating dirt and matter/Spilling paint and solar laughter/Giving all its heart has got to give") run alongside ruminations on married life in "Now That You're Older" ("How you've read me, you know my things/You know the angriest of spirits I can bring/You know my tides, you wear my ring").
Clearly energized by becoming a bandleader, Ulseth credits the power of collaborative tension for This Is the River's engaging sound, which was honed during a year of recording at bandmate Eric Carlson's home studio in St. Paul.
"I am totally impatient and would prefer to just crank out records," Ulseth freely admits as our conversation ends. "Eric on the other hand is super meticulous and the type to say things like, 'Let's listen to a couple of different reverb options through different speakers.' I think having those two opposing mentalities ultimately helps the band."
Intentionally hidden from public view as they evolved, the band didn't play live until the record was completed, and their CD-release show at Icehouse will be just their third gig to date.
"If it were up to me I would put out a record every six months," Ulseth says. "But that's not actually very realistic, and at that pace I don't think they would be very good records. That's where the band has really helped reel me in. We help each other pick the right battles."