Any artist who opens an album with a track
titled “North Idaho Zombie Rag” is surely not afraid of the dark, and Boise, Idaho jug band trio HILLFOLK NOIR make it clear that they have the market cornered when it comes to haunted Americana. A unique blend of string-band, punk, folk, and country blues (a sound that they call “junkerdash”), Hillfolk Noir’s latest album, POP SONGS FOR ELK, plays like a jukebox collection of ghostly tracks from various traditions and eras, mixed into something completely danceable and infectiously amusing.
Formed by husband-and-wife team Travis Ward (guitar, suitcase, harmonica, and vocals) and Alison Ward (musical saw, banjo, washboard, and vocals), and double-bassist Mike Waite, Hillfolk Noir recalls the Idaho that existed during the Great Depression—a bleak landscape of barren potato fields, empty-pan miners, deserted logging camps, and displaced Okies. But most intriguing is how the three-piece jug band interprets from this era an underlying energy, adding a colorful shine to an otherwise dark, blurry, dusty, and sepia-toned palette. In other words, as Seattle Weekly puts it, “Hillfolk Noir have fine-tuned their dark, Depression-era jangly blues to become one of the most incredible bands in Boise. They are as honest as they come.”
Most of the tracks on Pop Songs for Elk were recorded live and mixed straight to mono, create a timeless clarity to their sound. Newly-composed songs and jug-band chestnuts merge seamlessly in a ruckus of hard-driving rhythm guitar, beautiful vocal duets, eerie musical saw, and solid bass. There is an underlying dark humor to many of their songs—just give a listen to jug-band-style “Uncle Jake” or psychedelic “Sniffing Glue Blues.” But there’s also a sensitivity that shows the broad scope of Hillfolk Noir’s junkerdash sound, with Travis Ward’s lonesome croon and simple picking on tracks like “Poor Man’s Love Song” being at once strangely humorous and poignant. “Too authentic to be considered alt anything,” says Michael Deeds of the Idaho Statesman. “Ward is an evocative, charismatic singer-songwriter who embraces diverse shards of Americana. Time-warped kaleidoscopes —sparse, historically reverent and pretty terrific.” Wherever Hillfolk Noir fall on the spectrum of the sound they have coined “junkerdash,” Pop Songs for Elk with have you shuffling your feet and reaching for your whiskey glass.