Keeping Folk Music Fresh with Polars
Folk music is one of those genres that seems set in its ways. It is steeped in such a rich history and clearly defined sensibility that, although its lyrical material evolves with the times, the music itself is more difficult to expand on for modern musicians. The Cleveland-based duo Polars show that innovation in the folk realm is possible, as evidenced by their debut album Into the Pines. While the album is loyal to the folk tradition with its emphasis on acoustic sounds, rich vocal harmonies, and earthy lyrical content, musicians Justin Miller and Kurt Eyman branch out from the canon in creative ways with catchy songwriting and tasteful modern production techniques. It all works to prove the idea that with a deft touch and solid musicianship, any style of music, including folk, can continue to grow and evolve.
The most noticeable trait from Into the Pines that breaks from traditional folk music is the range of styles on the album. Yes, there are a few straight up folk songs like the closer “June,” but there is also the ethereal, almost ambient opener “St. Charles” and more beat-focused tracks like “Laniakea” and the more electronic “Klop.” And through it all, even among similarly styled songs, Polars make inventive use of melody and harmony to give each track an original quality that keeps the listener guessing and interested.
Into the Pines puts a heavy emphasis on nature, from its name to the album art and then with its lyrical content. The motif is perhaps most prevalent on “Laniakea” and the album’s title track. In “Laniakea,” which is the name of the galaxy supercluster that houses our milky way, Miller and Eyman write about our seemingly miniscule place in the grand scheme of nature and the universe. Toward the end of the song they write, “Now I can feel your hand shaking / don’t be afraid, we are awake / at least we try to create a world we can say is ours / you and I, in the wild.” It’s a reminder to keep perspective and to remember that we are just creatures in the wild. “Into the Pines” offers a similar message, as Miller and Eyman suggest that in nature is the true place to be oneself. They sing in the chorus, “Into the pines we go / the only place where it can be so / into the pines we go / the only place where I can show.”
One moment that discusses an alternate way of perceiving nature is on the upbeat “Indigo Kids,” where Miller and Eyman write about listening to one’s intuition, even when society condemns it. They write, “in a world that believes only what it sees / intuitive approaches provide clarity.” The “Indigo Kids” in the song refer to the voices of ghosts who can help us better understand our place in the universe. Whether this is a statement that ghosts exist or simply a reminder to heed the lessons of those who came before us is open to interpretation but it seems that the true message is to listen to the voices deep down within ourselves, even when others might try to “muzzle your wandering mind.” The message is matched with the happy sounding music, which seems surprisingly fresh, given that it’s normally a somber topic. The cheerful music reinforces the positivity of the song’s message.
Whether one is a folk purist or more of a modern indie pop fan, Into the Pines offers plenty to enjoy. The lyrics are thoughtful and heartfelt, the instrumental and vocal delivery are strong throughout the album, and the production is gentle enough to give the music extra depth while rarely being noticed. Polars shows us that just because a band might play in a genre with heavily defined notions and expectations, it does not mean the music cannot continue to expand toward the future.