By Layla Marino
Many music fans nowadays are feeling the weight of ironic hipster folk and blues bands pressing down on them like a big, plaid, beardy lumberjack’s boot.
Though it seems folkster bands like Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes are sincere in their reverence for the mountain people music of days gone by, there is a definite hint of irony in most of the culture surrounding these folk throwback sounds. Just because one enjoys a full beard and dueling banjos, one should not feel obligated to begin whittling Adirondack chairs and the canning of one’s own pickles.
CommonUnion59, a duo from San Francisco, have found one way to combat these fervent folksters.
It seems with the trend toward 1860’s folk, music fans have forgotten one of the best periods of this genre, the 1960’s. Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and of course the gravely-voiced Don of 60s blues folk, Bob Dylan all came out of this era. CommonUnion59 take their cue from these champions of the protest song, and in doing so bring back an earnestness to folk, which due to perhaps too much of a good thing, was in danger of hipster-induced stagnation.
Steve McKenzie and Laura Malasig are the singer/songwriter duo who make up CommonUnion59, both playing multiple instruments on their first album, Magnolia Waltz, and on their new release, Heartbeat Serenade. Select songs from Heartbeat Serenade have been posted on Soundcloud in advance of the album’s official release on February 1 of this year. For a limited time these tracks can be streamed and downloaded in full on SoundCloud for free.
McKenzie and Malasig have used the classic techniques of blending blues, country and subtle folk just as the 60s masters did in order to create light and pretty but emotionally impactful sounds. While many of these folk artists wrote songs in protest of the war and about the awakening consciousness of the baby boomer generation, CommonUnion59’s lyrics are generally more introspective.
The title track, for example, sees McKenzie reflecting on love and the human condition; the ideal of love in peoples’ minds versus the reality of making love work. This track employs some other 60s musical styles with the introduction of a psychedelic-sounding guitar and a, dreamy Beatles-style quality to the melody.
While some songs on Heartbeat Serenade do reflect on some cultural points, such as the reflection on re-imagining of American culture in the modern world in “American Dream, it would seem the duo do not have a political aim. CommonUnion59 also combine some more modern sounds, such as on “Not Dead Inside,” which sounds a little more indie, as it’s in a minor key and will remind listeners of Natalie Merchant’s solo work.
This is mostly due to the tone and timbre of Laura Malasig’s voice. Her bell-clear and pitch-perfect vocals are a common theme throughout CommonUnion59’s work, and they play a great role in setting the duo apart from other folk groups on the scene today.
The upshot here is that CommonUnion59 are a good bet for unpretentious, well-composed folk with a tiny bit of indie flair. As you will see in the video above for the single “This Could Be” off of Magnolia Waltz, Laura Malasig and Steve McKenzie are under no illusions of being cool or ironic. They’re just interested in having a good time with music that makes them happy whilst frolicking in the Northern California sun (while it lasts).
This grassroots folk duo may not be as politically charged as some of their forebears, but at least there is nary a beanie or fixed gear bike in sight. Check out our recommended track “Not Dead Inside” from Heartbeat Serenade via the player below, and look for the full album on CD Baby, coming in February.