Nick Castro & The Young Elders
Come Into Our House
ith the release of Further from Grace a year ago, L.A.’s Nick Castro pledged his allegiance to UK folk of the 60s. Recorded with his previous backing band the Poison Tree, which included Josephine Foster and members of Espers, Further from Grace invited comparisons to the works of Incredible String Band in its traditional Celtic and Eastern instrumentation and sound. Come Into Our House is likely to bring the same reaction, but Castro effortlessly proves that while he’s indebted to UK psych-folk, he isn’t tied down by it.
The opener “Winding Tree” establishes the unhurried Renaissance folk sound that has become Castro’s trademark. A plucked medieval-tinged stringed instrument and recorder begin the piece, followed by Castro and vocalist Wendy Watson sparring in a lilting harmony against a shuffling, courtly rhythm backing. Castro returns to this sound on “One I Love,” a ballad written by traditional singer/songwriter Jean Ritchie with a verse melody re-appropriated from “Scarborough Fair.”
As with Further from Grace, Castro experiments with a number of world influences and instruments outside the medieval and Celtic sphere. Percussion instruments like tabla, nyabinghi drum, and dumbek give some tracks (including instrumentals “Attar” and the thirteen-minute “Lay Down Your Arms”) a pronounced Middle Eastern-cum-psych feel. The eclectic set of instruments necessary to achieve this sound are played by the Young Elders, Castro’s new backing band that includes B’eirth from In Gowan Ring, Joolie Wood from Current 93, and Wendy Watson, who is perhaps the most noticeable collaborator given the frequent harmonies she shares with Castro. The Young Elders are much more percussion-oriented than the Poison Tree, and it shows in their surprisingly fluid integration of ethnic rhythms into Castro’s more conventional pieces like “Winding Tree,” “Picolina,” and “One I Love.” There’s less of a sense of division between Castro’s influences; he seems more comfortable with synthesizing musical hybrids and cross-genres into pretty songs without making novelty out of it.
It’s Castro’s willingness to explore well-trod psych paths that so often pushes critics to make the connection to the Incredible String Band, and indeed he does take some cues from them. Castro spurns the blues-based and Appalachian folk that classic psych-folk groups often championed, though. And on Come Into Our House he’s pushed even further away from the American tradition to more fully embrace the traditional British dirge.
Castro loosens that embrace at his will and only briefly, but to great benefit. While he carves out a rich and polished study in Celtic and ethnic folk, it’s the more jagged, less conventional bits that stand out. “Sleeping in a Dream” begins as a traditional-style ballad, but halfway through fades into a subdued freak-out, cashing in the percussive capital Castro has invested in the Young Elders. The nine-minute “Voices from the Mountains” is a compelling atmospheric piece with little organized rhythm to speak of, beginning with mysterious piano and crackling percussion before bringing in cold, evocative Eastern stringed instruments, like a lost Side 2 from Berlin-era Bowie. It works well sandwiched between the Eastern instrumental “Attar” and “Standing on the Standing Stone,” arguably the most pop-oriented track on the album. It’s these harder-to-pigeonhole moments that Castro and his band are at their most evocative—unfortunately, there are few of them to be found.
Sometimes it appears that too much weight is placed on traditions that have been thoroughly covered by Celtic revivalist and 60s UK folk. Castro is as guilty of this as anyone: his secret is to maintain a level variety and to never let artifice control his generally pretty songwriting. That’s why Come Into Our House will strike fans of Further from Grace as a notable evolution and other listeners will still find themselves wishing for Castro to prove himself in a situation where he can’t rely on the tradition that so obviously guides him.