efore this summer the American South had, for quite some time, held something of a stranglehold on my imagination. Fueled by books, movies, and music, I daydreamed about haunted bayous and spirits dancing in and out of the trees. I envisioned beautifully rustic wooden shacks isolated on tiny islands in the middle of vast lakes. I imagined carefree folk being played on the porches of those shacks. Well, that was before this summer. After this summer, having decided to find these things a few months prior, I can confirm my expectations were somewhat European in their romanticism. What I found on my venture into the South was pretty much the same as everything else I found in America; convenience stores, fast food joints, and more convenience stores. So, all in all: yeah, something of a disappointment. I did have a moment of Southern magic, though. It just came as something of a shock that it happened whilst I was sitting next to a very obese man, feeling slightly queasy at having just eaten too many sweets, traveling across the country on an Amtrak train.
The magic came courtesy of listening for the first time to Harpoon by Larkin Grimm, a singer-songwriter raised in the foothills of the Appalachians, now based in Providence, Rhode Island. The music she makes could be compared to the likes of Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and CocoRosie, in that they all make slightly off-the-beaten-track folk music, but Grimm's is more primal and intense, and all the more thrilling for it.
A collection of songs that range from pitch-black lullabies about sexual warfare, to honey-sweet serenades which scream love and violence at the same time, Harpoon is essentially skewed folk pop that veers from the incredibly abstract one minute to the whimsically carefree the next. For the most part, the album sounds almost hymnal, and even though Grimm clearly doesn’t take blues music to be a literal influence, the songs she writes have a lived-in quality that suggests old blueswomen have been singing them for decades. They ooze with the kind of gritty lo-fi soul, so many musicians today try—and fail—to create.
The instrumentation is relatively minimal, with a ramshackle drum beat here and a lightly picked dulcimer there, making room for the most special instrument in Grimm's possession: her voice. One minute a hushed sensual whisper, the next a terrifyingly feral howl, Grimm uses her voice in a way that few performers even attempt to, and rather than rely on guitars and drums to motor her songs along, she uses her voice as her primary tool. Like Bjork’s Medulla, Harpoon is the sound of a woman in awe of the human voice and the places it can be taken. On the title track, for example, she simply layers various vocals on top of one another, to create something almost euphoric in its intensity.
Listening to Harpoon, I could see Larkin floating downstream on a raft with one hand in the water, the other on her chest. I could see her singing alone in the woods, creating lullabies for the unseen animals around her. The lyrics made me think of blood and love, sex and rage, mysticism and ritual. All of this may seem corny, hammy, and even possibly camp to a native Southerner, and probably to Grimm herself, but the intense collision of sex, religion, nature, and passion I found on Grimm's record was everything I wanted to find in the South. It’s a pity that I had to actually go there to find that out.
Reviewed by: Robert Caro
Reviewed on: 2005-12-15