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Be Here Now

The luminous, earthbound folk songs of Josephine Foster open a window to the sublime

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The mythical "Old Weird America" envisioned by critic Greil Marcus has been a great boon to musicians and writers devoted to the more uncanny and lurid folklore of the bygone rural South. One upshot, for better and for worse, has been the emergence of a hermetic circle of naif-like, avant-folksingers who trade in a strain of rustic mysticism and whimsy that some have taken to calling the "New Weird America." Mingled with aspects of the more out-there psychedelia of the late '60s and early '70s, the twin totems of these proponents of musical arcana are Harry Smith's cabbalistic Anthology of American Folk Music and the breathtaking, austere music of 1960s British folk revivalists like Shirley Collins, Vashti Bunyan and the Incredible String Band. It all makes for an abundant wellspring from which to draw material and inspiration. Yet too often these young acolytes become magpies, proffering fey, willfully artless or otherwise mannered approximations of the work of their forebears. Devendra Banhart, the movement's de facto figurehead, is the most vexing case in point, a prolific, gifted musician whose affectations too often have him coming off more as poetaster than poet.

All of which makes Chicagoan Josephine Foster, a nakedly emotional vocalist and multi-instrumentalist who plays at Angle of View Monday, that much more captivating for her reluctance to fetishize weirdness and whimsy for their own sake. Much like her fellow neo-primitive Joanna Newsom, Foster embraces the quotidian—everything from hominy grits to yearlings grazing in a meadow—with a sense of wonder and possibility that enables her to spy windows that open onto something deeper and more abiding than the everyday. "Don't hold it, behold it! / It's not yours or mine," she warbles in "The Siren's Admonition," immersing herself in the moment while playing swirling notes on what sounds like a cross between a sitar and a guitar. "There are eyes above / There are feet below me / I am in between / Somebody console me," she intones with a mix of musing and entreaty in another track on her luminous new Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You. In a voice at once reedy and crepuscular, and accompanying herself on harp, ukulele and the likes of wooden spoons and wire tires, Foster persistently achieves something that, far from quaint or precious, is elemental and timeless. At her best, she transforms things that most of us take for granted into portals to transcendence.

—Bill Friskics-Warren

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