Around the start of the noughties Freak Folk (or Psych-Folk, or any other derivation or synonym of ‘beardy-weirdy’ you care to prefix to the folk designation: people thought of lots) was de rigeur. With Devendra Banhart as their king and Joanna Newsom their queen scores of guitar-strumming hairy types realised that after a thirty-year break they could get naked, call each other ‘dude’ and warble whimsical campfire ditties again, and not only would nobody chastise them, but for a couple of years they would be the darlings of the indie set. But Devendra has moved away from endearing lo-fi and towards increasingly misjudged doo-wop, and Joanna has cast off her more eccentric tendencies with progressive maturation and in the mean time the rest of the freak-folk crowd have, let’s be honest, been largely forgotten.
So it feels a little like Norwegian duo Thinguma*jigSaw, releasing a wilfully quirky folk record populated by saws and accordions, might have missed the boat a bit – folk may be coming back into fashion in the UK in the sanitised form of Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling, but Ghoul’s Out is unmistakably part of a freakier tradition. Good music is good music no matter when it drops of course, but without a wave to keep it afloat Thinguma*jigSaw’s effort, whilst undeniably lovely, feels a bit too insubstantial to make much of a splash.
The brainchild of Martha Redivivus & Seth Horatio Buncombe (good, solid Norwegian names), Thinguma*jigSaw have surrounded themselves with a carefully cultivated and nicely comprehensive image (what we might these days call Burtonesque), and have also strapped on a handmade genre appellation: ‘splatterfolk’. This might sound like a musical extension of the Saw and Hostel franchises, but it in fact proudly (and none too modestly) trumpets the duo’s embracing of the dichotomy of ‘intensity and sincerity’ and ‘unpredictability and wit’.
Banjos are plaintively plucked, guitars achingly strummed, saws weep and flutes flutter their breathy eyelashes, as Buncombe’s pleasant and evocative voice, often in falsetto mode, paints these eight tracks with increasingly morbid lyrical exhalations. ‘We’re All Doomed’, the first track is unapologetically titled, and from there on the lyrical moroseness doesn’t let up. ‘Ghoul’s Out’, ‘Dawn of the Dead’, ‘The Reaper Cometh’, ‘The Perfidious Sarcophagus’: it’s fair to say these guys think about death quite a lot. But if plumbing the depths of the soul was the object I’m not sure it was achieved. The musical accompaniment to these sinister postulations is too airy and resignedly content, and the vocal tone too placid for us to seriously invest in Thinguma*jigSaw’s morbidity as something intense and vital – I See A Darkness this is not. There are some special songs here: ‘Ghoul’s Out’, a reimagining of Paranormal Activity with a happy ending, is charming in its fragility, ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is a winningly cheery Celtic-folk suicide note, and beautiful album highlight ‘The Perfidious Sarcophagus’ is softly reminiscent of Nick Drake, but arguably Ghoul’s Out’s failing is in not being freaky enough. The splatter-folk claim and hubristic assertions of complete musical originality suggest a project far more striking than the reality of Thinguma*jigSaw. James Joyce, rather than any musical peers, is highlighted as a major audience (the band even base themselves in Dublin), but the only real nods to his writings come in the pretty half-hearted attempts at Joycean language in ‘The Perfidious Sarcophagus’: ‘milky mucus as our pumps rick-tock in our jumping jock flesh’. Joyce was content with nothing less than redefining the whole English tongue and spent decades writing several hundred pages of minutely studied incomprehensible gibberish. If you’re gonna evoke the guy you might as well go the whole hog.
Ghoul’s Out is assured, well-executed and charming, but it’s also a bit too short, a bit too musically insubstantial, not quite melodically memorable enough, and ultimately not quite as weird as you feel it ought to be. The duo have hinted that whilst this is a ‘lighter… more commercial’ set of songs, another upcoming record dealing with ‘infanticide, snuff-killings and other unpleasantries… will be Thinguma*jigSaw`s darkest and grimmest outing yet.’ I’m willing to wager that’ll make a bit more sense. Until then, though, Ghoul’s Out is a decent placeholder that hints at lots of potential.
First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010