The recent "new folk" movement has been encroaching from two fronts: rolling from the east, led by punky New York cabaret acts like Kimya Dawson and Regina Spektor, and drifting from the west, blown by the childlike post-hippie fantasies of San Franciscans Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. Meanwhile, down the coast a bit from Frisco, Los Angeles singer-songwriters Mia Doi Todd and Inara George have been siphoning some of the folk away from the new folk, aiming for a sound that's simultaneously forward-thinking and classically rooted.
Todd's the more impressive case, since she started in the mid-'90s as a straight-up, stripped-down coffeehouse poet, and has gradually added elements of soul, jazz, blues, and electronica over the course of four records. Album number five, Manzanita, brings in a smoky mysticism and freeform beauty that recalls Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, and Joni Mitchell. With backing from members of neo-psychedelic outfits Beachwood Sparks and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Todd works a little heavier, beginning with the pounding beat and abrasive guitars of the album opener "The Way." But Manzanita's best songs play nicer, like the sublime "What If We Do?" and the easy-gliding "The Last Night Of Winter," which makes a long-distance relationship sound like an act of romantic heroism. Even oddities like the Caribbean-flavored "Casa Nova" and the mariachi-styled "Tongue-Tied" fit Manzanita's overall scheme, recalling L.A. singer-songwriter albums of the '70s, when every musical style was in play. Inevitably, the record ends on a more intimate note, with Todd and her guitar whispering to her lover: "There are eggs for an omelet if you're hungry."
Inara George kicks off her debut album All Rise with "Mistress," which slips a Björk-like vocal hiccup over acoustic guitar and electronic glitches. From there, the record wanders freely, trying out Beatles-esque guitar-hopping on "Genius," Natalie Merchant-style melody-spinning on the winningly conversational "Good To Me," and more Beatles-esque guitar-hopping on "Turn On/Off." Between those high spots, All Rise sticks with an indistinct mix of airy ballads cut with quasi-techno skittering, but the record clearly shows off George's talent and eclectic bent. As the daughter of Little Feat headman Lowell George, Inara George has more mainstream music business savvy than a lot of her contemporaries, and her songs—co-written with producer-guitarist Michael Andrews—display the pop-informed charm of new-folk predecessors Jon Brion, Aimee Mann, and Suzanne Vega. The genre's gone through a few iterations in the past two decades, but it eventually cycles back to the same starting point: a sweet voice, a pretty melody, and a sad story.