No Guts, No Gravy
y this point, freak-folk has ceased to startle, and any latecomers to the scene are only scrabbling for a place in an already-congealed genre, no longer being able to mark their terrain. So if you sound like you're trying to be part of the movement, you also sound like you're a few turns behind on the dirt road to acclaim. If you just sound like you're doing your own thing and you happen to draw (not entirely inaccurate) comparisons to Joanna Newsom, then there might be room for you on the wagon.
Hanner (aka Johanna Wright) fits into this latter group. She's a strange one alright, a former New York street artist who discovered the baritone ukelele, remembered her old violin lessons, and cut an album, No Guts, No Gravy. While you could place her comfortable in either of the primary -folk scenes (freak or anti), she sounds less invested in genre conventions than in personal expression. She clearly enjoys the oddity of her orchestrations and has carefully crafted the lo-fi productions, but there's a Romantic element to her: a common lyrical balladeer rather than a faux-naive artiste.
Her knowledge of contemporary folk appears at times, especially in the mini-Appalachian yodels that become more prominent in the album's second half. "They're Nude" relies on the performance of folk codes instead of the creation of a popular song. Hanner plays with pronunciation, topic, and structure to suggest mountain music without actually holding its own weight. Partly parody and mostly throwaway novelty, "They're Nude" doesn't differ from the rest of the album in Hanner's use of humor (she's plenty comfortable with smiling), but in the removal of self, except for the self-as-artist, which becomes too self-conscious a presentation to maintain the structure of the rest of the disc.
Just a few tracks later, Hanner turns to a seemingly ridiculous topic—someone trying to build a computer with parts found in the yard—and turns it into a moving meditation on life's frustrations and challenges. Her insights aren't compelling, nor is her wordplay (turning "tried so hard" into "hard to try"), but her idiosyncratic delivery pushes the humor into meaning that develops out of feel and tone.
That delivery frequently supports strong material. "Birds and Girls" stands as the album's high point. "She was a girl, she was a ghost when she was alive" survives the track's morbidity as a memorable phrase, but the song thrives on its complex expression of loss and hesitant recognition of life. Pondering the person that Hanner refers to allows an inquisition into what at first glance feels like an elegy.
Her lateness to the scene might prevent Hanner's album from ever getting the attention it deserves. After all, No Guts, No Gravy isn't a defining moment in the subculture, and it isn't the kind of record that demands your attention with exciting inventiveness or virtuosity. It is, however, a personal statement by an artist chasing an original vision, and anyone attracted to the current folk scene, might want to give this disc a chance for its uncommon folk music.