The issue with the folk revival is that we as listeners- since about 2009- have become saturated with artists. Beyond that, the style allows for a large amount of leniency in what constitutes “good” or “listenable”: Throw some open chords, an easy bass line, and some vocal harmonies into the pot and it’s pretty easy to bob your head to. This has made me weary of new folk artists, as there are many of them not saying much at all.
Jamil Apostol, however, has something fresh, that sort of musician who hops trains, sleeps a night in a field somewhere, and is just as happy playing to three people in a living as to a stadium- perhaps more so.
Does anyone remember Medicine For The People’s first album, On The Verge? Few contemporary fans probably do, but Nahko and crew started out with a lo-fi album robustly integrating a lot of spirit into some Appalachian-style instrumentation, replete with trumpet. I don’t think Off The Beaten Path foretells Jamil hitting Nahko highs, but I would say that there are parallels. I would also say that, as far as Americana goes, this album is better than many, even some large name acts.
Overall, I’m not the biggest fan of this kind of music. Not that I don’t appreciate it, but it sort of slips below my radar rather easily, so I took my time with Apostol’s work. “My Red White Blues” wins best track award. It’s political, no doubt about that. “Why would you ask for change/ when you can have a bill?” he asks. “Reload, replenish/ pop!/ One shot kills.” It’s just him and his guitar. The song would make Woody Guthrie proud, just a fierce, vocal performance.
“Homeless Romantic” is similar, lyrics rocketing forth over minimal instrumentation, and just as political. “Full Beaver Moon” adds pretty harmonica over finger-picked guitar and Jamil’s distinct alto dings, “Creatures of habit are at it again… As the dove sings her song.” It’s just vague enough to drum up myriad imagery. He often does this, mixing narrative with introspection.
The title track begins with eerie banjo and Jamil offering, “Started as a dream… All the leaves are falling/ into different directions.” The song discusses life and death. Had he added grandiose strings and fiery percussion, this would sound like a Sujan Stevens B-side.
But part of what makes Off The Beaten Path fancy-free is its sparsity and articulated use of instruments, as well as Jamil knowing his voice well, throwing it around at ideal points. The songs have a lot of heart, and even when the content is heavy the melodies are light, (take the sing-a-long aspect of “Open Ticket Ride”). Taking something classic, something traditional, and adding enough pizzazz to make it unique is quite a task. Fans of this “scene” will enjoy Jamil’s talent and the execution of this lively, colorful album.