Folk music has always been the great unifier, its traditions loaded with neighbors coming together both merrily and melancholic by way of porch, campfire, or dance hall. The will to share a story lies at the heart of the genre, but what about when, just like its players, folk wants only to be left alone?
One totally satisfactory answer is Ancient Edge, the reclusive and hauntingly gorgeous album from Lisa/Liza, recording alias of 23-year-old Portland songwriter Liza Victoria. Spacious and trim at a shade over 30 minutes, its eight songs are like the wondrous cousins of popular folk — like those you meet at the dance hall with whom you might take flight out the back door. It's a solitary, bizarre, and guardedly obsessive record, yet one that breathes deeply and effortlessly, its experimentations and variations in craft preserving it from ever feeling maudlin or antisocial.
Recorded onto four-track with varying credits of instrumentation and location, each piece on Ancient Edge contains a unique personality, connected by the thread of Victoria's hazy, lyrical guitar. On "Grief Wave," a full measure of tape hiss prefaces a lovely waltzing refrain, its top-heavy melody imprinting itself into memory before shuffling out of the way of the vocal. On "Song to Another Self," Victoria rescues a frail, rock-a-bye hook and transforms it into a personal confessional: "Even though Ma says don't talk to strangers/every night I talk to God and his angels." Positioned right at its heart, there's no weightier or more subjective moment on the whole record, yet the album's artful tone and balance poises it without a hint of bluster.
Next, "One Second Please" rouses a spinning wheel of softly strummed chords over which Victoria, as if daring the listener to make it out, whisper-sings a wistful theme: "Oh, how I wished that mine/all of mine second guesses/would breathe and then lead me to you/leaving me breathless." Like Grouper or Mazzy Star's best songs, it dazzles in spite of — maybe because of — its refusal to call attention to itself, and it's the album's most understated and possibly best track.
Bridging the album's six songs are two pinched and playful interludes — the bitmapped celestial ambience of "Off Track" and the excellent "Courtyard X-ing," a fractious, twinkling melody tape-looped to life from the fibers of a piano demo played in reverse. It's after "Courtyard," and totally without warning, that we discover "Saturn-Day," the album's marvelous and goofy closer, which sounds like a sun-distorted demo reel of Steely Dan covering Gillian Welch. Like some pockmarked teenager too brilliant to be interested in high school, the song manages, amazingly, to hold itself together while rhythms and melodies constantly threaten to flee both time and key. "Saturn-Day" is one of the most brilliantly decayed outsider folk songs I've ever heard, and dizzyingly invites the question of what else its creator might be capable of.
It's with a remarkable mix of maturity, honesty, and play that Lisa/Liza cobbles together Ancient Edge from the bones of folk music. And just like a skeleton, the record is weightless enough to let pass through it a considerable number of ghosts, who on several occasions bring it awkwardly, heartbreakingly to life. You might find some of yours in there too.
ANCIENT EDGE | released by Lisa/Liza | with Mal Blum + Zoe Boekbinder + Speaker for the Dead | at Flask Lounge, 117 Spring St, Portland | Dec 3 | lisalizas.bandcamp.com