Previously the team of Brady Lee Burkett and Ryan Shaffer appeared as Happy Hour Astrology, and under that guise recorded an eponymous unheard gem of basement kraut and heady sound collage released at the turn of the century. It was an album barely talked about, entirely undistributed outside the 1-270 outer belt and instead mysteriously snuck into vinyl bins around the tri-state area. As a consequence (for better or worse), it’s become virtually impossible to find and in some circles risen to the status of cult curiosity. In my hope of hopes I’d figured these life-long friends retreated back to their bunker to spend another half-decade splicing through miles of tape, and when they’d finally decided to come up for air, another quasi-masterpiece would surface in limited quantities, and so on and so on —a continual process of leap-year leftfield ether cycles.
Instead they’ve returned as Stark Folk, and on the surface are playing it straight, or as the first song, “What Are You Doing Here?” states “playing the part.” The only reason this album is deigned as Past Perfect lies in its meticulous rewind to roots. It deserves the space, and without Old 3C, Stark Folk may have been squandered a fate similar to Happy Hour Astrology. But it doesn’t sound lost, and instead of a bunker lined with Stockhausen and Agitation Free records, the two found some land in the bohemian paradise of Yellow Springs, Ohio to make their country record. Willie Nelson, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Roky Erickson (had he made a honky-tonk album) are appropriate reference points. Even Ween’s 12 Country Greats comes to mind, not in the sense that what Stark Folk do here is a joke, but in that they incorporate all the signifiers that make a country album stand apart and do it with deep sincerity.
Though as much as Stark Folk can be seen as a traditional pallete cleansing shot at worn-heart, world-weary, tear-in-the-beer country and western, there’s enough reverb rambling around in each song to still consider this psychedelic. “Don’t Turn Around” is the Stark Folk template, but even that seems a front for the searing leads that rise from underneath. And if it weren’t for the standard approach Burkett and Shaffer use to frame their songs, there might be side-long jams on the cutting room floor. Those mood-enhanced guitars become downright evil on “Peace of Mine,” like angry zephyrs forging their own path through some dark, dark, woods. On this debut, it’s either those thorny brambles or expertly dusted and weeping lap steel excursions that manage to create a reality separate from most nostalgic connotations.
These just might be songs you’ve heard before. It seems Stark Folk are well aware of that, but their execution trumps any suppressed memories. The lyrics even suffer as if coming from hokum vapor, but those seem to be an afterthought. At the point in the record, on “My, My, Oh My” when Burkett asks, “Where’s your head sometimes?” you can simply respond back that now it’s floating. This isn’t a record for everyone, but it is thee head record for medicated farm hands and morphine jamborees.
Kevin J. Elliott