Six Degrees of Mirel Wagner’s Mirel Wagner

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 03.28.12 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

Mirel Wagner's songs of mayhem are perhaps best heard as dreams ("Dream," along with "No Hands" being as close to "positive" as she can manage), hallucinations or even prayers, as well as "folk music." Twenty-three years old, born in Ethiopia and raised in Finland, she writes mostly of macabre love and macabre death. And make no mistake, her depression can get downright creepy ("Her body is cold/ Well it's gonna get colder/ But my love will ignite/ What was left to smolder/ I move my hips/ In her I am home/ I'll keep on loving/ 'Til the marrow dries from her bones/ No death/ Can tear us apart"). Her billowing voice, which is actually quite tender and pleasing, becomes like a cloud of poison gas hanging in the air, while her acoustic guitar accompaniment is rudimentary and repetitive, but easily strong enough to support her words. It's all equal parts minimalism and durability, like traditional music around the world. You hear the same motifs expressed in, say, Child Ballads, the 305 Anglo-Scots songs and their New World variants that provide the basis for so much American music, especially country artists (think Louvin Brothers, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton) but even down to rock and pop contemporaries as varied as Leonard Cohen, the Doors, Lucinda Williams, Nick Drake, Lou Reed, Nick Cave, Karen Dalton, Richard Thompson, Fleet Foxes and Tom Waits. You can be sure similar imagery riddles the folk music of the dark, doomy and frozen North Country nation Wagner calls home. She has both personalized and universalized these themes in her own non-traditional version of folk music. But the results include the likes of the suicide song "Joe," where, just like in "The Banks of the Ohio" and so many others, the foul deed is finished in a river; or "Red," in which the narrator falls in love after dancing with the devil. Sound familiar? It should, though there's nothing else quite like it today.

The Southern Goth

Ode To Billie Joe

Bobbie Gentry

It's one of the most fitting ironies of American popular culture that at the height of 1967's Summer of Love, Gentry's mysterioso suicide ballad dominated charts. She always insisted that Billie Joe's death, and what he and the narrator/singer threw off the bridge the day before, wasn't the point anyhow; what the song was really about was everyone's callous, just-another-day reaction to the news. Meanwhile, her voice, much huskier than on most of her debut album's other songs, suggests the depth of the mystery and of her despair. Though the album's more a nostalgic celebration of Mississippi Delta life (including the upbeat) than it is a death dirge, there's no denying Bobbie loved her Southern Gothic. "Hurry Tuesday Child," despite wholly optimistic lyrics, sounds like something sad is about to happen, while "I Saw an Angel Die" makes explicit the central fact of Bobbie's songs: the woman lives almost entirely in her own head.

Ice on Ice

Just Like A Woman: Nina Simone Sings Classic Songs Of The '60s

Nina Simone

Nobody could sing icy like Nina Simone sings icy; one of her albums is actually titled Haughty and Aloof, and her sometimes-mannish voice and mesmerizing delivery could bring a devastatingly matter-of-fact tone to all kinds of songs. When one of her labels compiled some of her '60s rock interpretations, it had the sense to not only include a traditional ballad ("House of the Rising Sun," originally rocked up by the Animals) but several modern folk-rooted tunes that had similar impact (especially Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes"). Throw in two pieces of Dylan surrealism (the title tune and "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues") and the prayer-like "I Shall Be Released" and "Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There Is a Season)" and you've got a portrait of a woman as tough to figure out as Omie Wise herself.

The Wild Card


Alexander 'Skip' Spence

Don't be fooled by "Little Hands," the chirpy opener. The first lines of the succeeding "Cripple Creek" provide Oar's proper introduction: "A cripple on his deathbed/ In a daydream did ride." Maybe Oar is inevitably what happens when such themes combine with enough LSD to induce a crack-up. Cut right after the deposed founder of Moby Grape finished a six-month stint in Bellevue, shaped by what he called "saints and demons," this storied album is folkish and countryish, but also rockish and something else hard to describe. The songs are bawdy, manic, trancey, apocalyptic, naked, despairing, hilarious, dreamlike, incomprehensible and falling apart. Somehow, the whole mess sounds old-timey even where it's electric and experimental. And it just feels right to include here an album with lyrics like, "A broken heart would satisfy/ Broken in a mess/ A severed eye would gratify/ My soul I must confess/ I'd rather have no eyes at all/ Be blind upon the floor/ Then to stand upon the receiving end/ Of the right hand of the Lord."

The Child of Child Ballads

Few folk revivalists of the '60s had a claim on the classic child ballads like West did; born in 1938 in the Appalachian foothills of northwest Georgia, she learned them first-hand from relatives. But she later studied acting in New York, and that, too, is conveyed in the textures of her warbling vocals, and the way her voice begins to fade off at the end of each line as if there's more to the story but she ain't saying. Her father was both a poet and a union organizer, which also helped shape her sensibility. When she digs into a particularly grisly ballad like "Beaulamkin" or "Lucy Wan," her empathy is unmistakable, while she has real compassion for the framed servant of "The Sheffield Apprentice," and she appreciates the impossible situations of both the living and the dead in "The Unquiet Grave." Her banjo work carves out an original niche for her within a tradition already strictly defined.

Anything Goes

This album is very effective at turning authentic folk songs into commercial music; it embraces black as well as white artists rooted in traditional music, and "real" folk as well as revivalists, both making records meant for purists and non-purists alike. Bluesmen Brownie McGhee ("Betty and Dupree") and Mississippi John Hurt ("Frankie and Johnny") demonstrate how the feel of those baffling, fatalistic Child ballads cross-pollinates with the blues, while the Blue Sky Boys (barely) smooth out "Story of the Knoxville Girl" for country radio. (The details of revivalist Paul Clayton's troubled life could almost be a Child ballad.) And the traditional themes of death and murder, violence, betrayal, outlawry, misunderstanding, separation, taboo sex, depression and impossible feats and the often-surreal nature of everyday life assert themselves on song after song. Whether performed traditionally, commercially or somewhere in between, they sound strong and provide a comprehensive crash course.