Before spring spreads its wings once more and everyone gets all bubbly and beat-happy, let's make the most of the wintry world we're currently immersed in by focusing in on some throw-another-log-on-the-fire folk albums of the first order. Once we're safely out of the snow-friendly season, there'll be plenty of time for kicking out the jams, but here are some earthy, stripped-down sounds more suited for a wool-and-flannel-clad evening in than an all-night bacchanal out on the town. From legendary artists offering an unexpected twist on traditional tunes to the coolest, craftiest singer/songwriter sounds, here are five of the finest folk albums of the winter of '13.
1. Various Artists -- Son of Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys (Anti Records, Feb. 19)
Hall Willner's work on uber-cool all-star tribute albums goes all the way back to the '80s, when he was bringing together everyone from Lou Reed to Sun Ra for aural homages to Kurt Weill and vintage Disney films. The sequel to 2006's Rogue's Gallery is co-produced by Johnny "Jack Sparrow" Depp himself, and offers the likes of Nick Cave, Patti Smith, and Iggy Pop tackling traditional pirate tunes and other seafaring songs, but the duo of Tom Waits and Keith Richards scaring the shit out of the seagulls with their version of "Shenandoah" is in itself all the reason you need for entry into Willner's weird world.
2. Alasdair Roberts & Friends -- A Wonder Working Stone (Drag City)
Scotsman Alasdair Roberts, once of indie-folk outfit Appendix Out, has assimilated his homeland's folk tradition so completely that it's frequently hard to tell whether he's written a new tune expanding upon the Scottish folk songbook or he's breathing new life into a centuries-old song. We'll let you find out for yourself which of those is happening here, but by the time you've surrendered to Roberts' expertise with mystical imagery and serpentine melodies, it won't make much difference.
3. John Murry -- The Graceless Age (Evangeline Recording Co., March 5)
Mississippi native John Murry co-produced his debut album with Tim Mooney (Sun Kil Moon/American Music Club); it was the latter's last project before his untimely passing last year. Trace elements of Mooney's AMC bandleader Mark Eitzel are detectable in Murry's widescreen imagery and soulful moan, but those offering up Warren Zevon as a guidepost wouldn't be out of line either. In other words, the guy's got gravitas, but what else would you expect from an honest-to-God descendant of William Faulkner?
4. The Milk Carton Kids -- The Ash & Clay (Anti Records, March 26)
The L.A. Duo of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan is either the new Kings of Convenience or the new Simon & Garfunkel, depending on your generational reference point. Either way, they keep things hushed and spare on their debut album, making the most of their close vocal harmonies and fluid fingerpicking acoustic guitar patterns, while wisely resisting the temptation to flesh things out needlessly with additional instrumentation.
5. Tim Robinson -- Bloody Reason (WildCat Recording)
Imagine the arc of Searching for Sugar Man, the documentary about cult hero Rodriguez – genius songwriter toils in obscurity for years before being unearthed and embraced by a legion of fans previously unknown to him – if the protagonist remained underground, and you've basically got the Tim Robinson story. Robinson's been quietly crafting mind-blowing flights of pure poetry for three albums now. But whether or not Bloody Reason kickstarts his renaissance, its organic, uncluttered arrangements of songs about everything from Diego Rivera to Captain Ahab offering a truce to Moby Dick will still set your head spinning. FYI: for the moment, maverick indie WildCat Recording is the sole source for our hermetic hero's latest.