House of Wolves - Fold In The Wind (2011)
Folk music has been around for a lot longer than most music I regularly listen to. Consequently, the style as a whole seems a lot more played out than most of what I listen to. With folk, it’s not just that everyone can do it, but sometimes it actually seems like everyone does do it, at least at some point in their musical career.
Every year or so, an album comes out that reaffirms my faith in the timelessness of folk. Last year, Nana Grizol’s emotive folk masterpiece Ruth left me inspired and hopeful on the first listen and has continued to do so countless listens later. Now, I think I can safely say that I have found its successor. House Of Wolves’ debut full-length Fold In The Wind is a very different record than Ruth in terms of tone and theme, but maybe that speaks to the often overlooked diversity within the sphere of folk music.
House of Wolves is the solo project of Rey Villalobos, a singer/songwriter from Los Angeles, but yet another “guy with a guitar” he is not. As stated on his facebook page, Villalobos is a classically trained pianist, and cites the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin as his chief musical influence. Also of note is the origin of the project’s name. From Spanish to English, “Villa lobos” roughly translates to House of Wolves. This is indicative of just how personal Villalobos’ music is, and how inextricably tied his intimate thoughts and emotions are to his music. He’s the latest in a long line of songwriters who expertly flirt with the dangerous prospect of lyrical over-sharing but never fully venture into that territory. The feelings he expresses on Fold In The Wind — sometimes blatantly, in songs like the gorgeous “Jealous” — are all genuine, but he leaves many of the details up to the listener’s interpretation. This makes the songs on the album relatable to listeners but keeps them grounded in the experiences of the songwriter. Through poetic but simple lyrical sentiments, Villalobos achieves this balance. It helps that the most striking lines in each of these eleven songs are often the catchiest as well. In the chorus of the previously mentioned “Jealous,” he sings “I’m already jealous” with just an ounce of bitterness. On the low-tempo piece “Ageless”, he desperately sings “The fallen is saved / I wanna make things right” before heading into the chorus. As listeners, we’re left yearning to discover the true inspirations for these songs and their deliberately vague and often mysterious lyrics.
As good as they are, Fold In The Wind’s lyrics would make much less of an impact if Villalobos didn’t have to the voice to back them up. Thankfully, this is not the case. Villalobos’ vocals are possibly the most beautiful instrument I’ve heard on any album this year. Listening to this record, his voice is probably the first thing you’ll notice. On the sadly nostalgic opener “50’s”, a track which I first reviewed for The Needle Drop back in July, his cracked, reedy voice comes through clearly over the gentle guitar, percussion, and piano. With his heavenly, wispy vocals, he delivers some of the most bittersweet, depressing, and yet somehow romantic opening lines of any song I’ve heard: “Kiss me like it’s the 50’s / Pull your hands from the ground / Kiss me like it’s your ending / Never place me far from your sound.”
The instrumentation on the track builds with horns and more pronounced strings, but it all remains centered around Villalobos’ voice. He sounds like someone we’ve all heard before, but never in this context. Somewhere between the serenity of Sufjan Stevens circa Seven Swans and the broken, diminished innocence of Perfume Genius, Villalobos’ voice is immediately arresting. Maybe more than anyone else, his voice recalls that of Youth Lagoon’s Trevor Powers, although it should be said that Fold In The Wind is a much more powerful album than the new Youth Lagoon record The Year Of Hibernation.
“50’s” sets a good standard for what follows on Fold In The Wind, both musically and lyrically. Coupled with the strength of the following track “Jealous”, you’d think that this record must peak early, but the subsequent nine tracks live up to the very high musical level set by the first two. There isn’t much stylistic range between songs, but there doesn’t need to be. Villalobos has a formula that works, and he employs it like a master craftsman throughout the album’s 36 minutes. Slowly plucked or strummed acoustic guitar, light piano flickers, minimal percussion, and auxiliary horns for texture form the instrumental backbone of all of the songs on Fold In The Wind. It’s mixed perfectly, with Villalobos’ voice in the center and the instrumentation forming a lush sonic circle around him. Production highlights include the subtle vocal harmonies in the chorus of “Follow Me”, the Belle and Sebastian-style sway of “There She Goes” and the abandoned circus feel of the closing track “Flight”, which is complimented by its music-box melody. Combined with the often bittersweet lyrics, a lot of these instrumental flourishes procure some remarkably deep-seeded feelings of nostalgia.
As Summer changes to Autumn, it becomes increasingly hard to gauge what the outside temperature will be on a given day. I’ve been listening to Fold In The Wind on my fifteen minute walk to school every morning for the past two weeks, and I’ve been astounded at how the record’s tone seems to shift to match the environment around it. On warm, brightly lit Fall mornings, Fold In The Wind is a gentle and cool breeze nipping at your sleeves. On dark, overcast mornings that don’t really feel like mornings at all, the record is as cold and unforgiving as the foggy air that hangs over your whole town. On chilly rainy days, it’s either a stinging front of wind or a heated resting place to keep you safe from the elements. As sad as this record certainly is, I often find it to be remarkably comforting to listen to. Somewhere beyond the icy corridors and empty hallways of House of Wolves, there is a warm and powerful hearth that burns with the flames of understanding and genuine honesty. Finding it may prove to be a challenge, but the rewards will undoubtedly prove to outweigh the trials of discovery.
Key Tracks: “50’s”, “Jealous”, “Follow Me”
Fold In The Wind is available for streaming on the House of Wolves bandcamp page, and can be purchased there on CD (/100) for $11 and digitally for $9.