If anyone else was worried that Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, and Avett Brothers dehydrated “folk” for good, do relax. We can thank Chicago guitarist Matt Schneider for These Stars — his second album as Moon Bros. — a collection of eight ripe, deep original folk tunes that reclaim the genre. Dusty harmonica and wandering percussion over finger style guitar bring us to a porch at dusk or an attic stocked with beers.
But the songs, aided by Sam Wagster (The Cairo Band), Matthew Lux (Iron and Wine), and Dan Bitney (Tortoise), make more than mood. “Schneider’s song structures seem so loose and spontaneous that they must, you think, be improvised,” wrote Mukqs of Schneider’s 2014 release, Frijolillo. He continues, though, that “the dexterity and effortless lyricism of his playing attests to untold hours of woodshedding, to the point that such tossed off virtuosity has become his standard.” On These Stars, Schneider extends this contained recklessness.
Compared to Schneider’s earlier work, the forms on These Stars are more developed; “Wool Blankets” is a tiny masterpiece of melodic variation, development, and restraint. Patterns are nestled within patterns, turns within turns. The pedal steel enters every now and then in bursts, gifted to us like vials of replenishment. Schneider sings, in an unconcerned way: “I never really know why I’m sittin’ here/ Never been tryin’ to live here/ Blankets covered over roses/ Relax and think of life in small doses/ I woke up in summer, clean/ Checked out somewhere the ninth of September/ I didn’t really know how much I had saved/ If I did, well you know I cannot even remember.”
The recordings all fit within a folk or blues tradition, but given the complex rhythmic layers, they may as well be post-rock songs. “El Conejo” (“the rabbit”), an instrumental tune built on scale patterns, melds that Chicago strain of experimental meditation with the gentle lope of Tejano conjunto or cumbia. The wild “Blues” brings a bout of energy on par with the magnetic, restless finger style of guitarist Marisa Anderson. Schneider shares her propulsive time-feel, one deeply rooted in tradition but that never once feels weary. Even the slow and mid-tempo tunes propel, in their way: the creaky, exploratory lo-fi pining on “AC:DC,” and the cozy, intricately stitched “Pitch.”
The many forms of memory on These Stars all feel like poetry, from the lyrics themselves down to their delicate placement in time and place. Like all the best new-old recordings so fresh they sound faded again, certain phrases dissolve into the texture, gone for good.