First Listen: Kacy & Clayton, 'Strange Country'

Kacy & Clayton's new album, Strange Country, comes out May 6. (Courtesy of the artist)
Kacy & Clayton's new album, Strange Country, comes out May 6. (Courtesy of the artist)

It must feel somewhat daunting for serious young music-makers to link themselves to folk traditions in 2016. This is especially true if they're separated from the original sources not just by the passage of time, but also by intervening generations of revivalists and re-interpreters. If the youngbloods really want a thorough grasp of what's come before them, there's that much more music to wrap their heads around. Then again, if they get overly studious about extending a lineage, they may find that their new contributions don't seem that new at all.

Singer Kacy Anderson and fingerstyle guitarist Clayton Linthicum carve out plenty of room for play in their take on British and Appalachian folk and pre-electric blues. Though only 19 and 21, respectively, they've already released three albums, finally reaching a U.S. audience with their latest, Strange Country. The second cousins hail from rural Saskatchewan, where they absorbed knowledge and borrowed instruments from their elders, did their own record collecting, filled in the gaps with obscurities others posted online, and developed their musical voices in tandem, valuing freedom alongside familiarity.

Kacy & Clayton's recordings have occasionally been described as sounding like newly unearthed time capsules, but such reads don't give the duo enough credit. On Strange Country, they begin with the realization that nothing is exactly new and, from there, deftly draw age-old forms and contemporary self-awareness into conversation. "If You Ask How I'm Keeping," one of several originals, is a prime example: Over Linthicum's genteel waltz figure, Anderson inhabits the role of a woman narrating an unfulfilling script from which she sees no escape. "Because everything I'm doing has already been done," she sings, her murmured delivery deflating with the next line: "By the time I find my purpose, I will have burned out the sun." Their keen, low-key observation of deadening letdowns within small-town life cycles — especially those faced by housewives — is a distant kin to Kacey Musgraves' interests.

Linthicum and Anderson have a sly rapport; his contributions are spry and frolicsome, while hers are mesmeric and reflective. In the title track, she drapes breathy elegance over his lively rhythmic attack. In "Brunswick Stew," they trade vocal lines and glide into harmonizing, propelled by his cunning, jaunty figures and lean percussion. During "Over The River Charlie," she curls and stretches her syllables to pensive effect, while he nimbly hurtles through licks, and in "Dyin' Bed Maker," his playing is jittery and fretful beneath her singing, which at times seems to hover gracefully in midair.

In some tracks, ambient textures like cursive strings, washy steel guitar, glistening vibraphone and enveloping reverb frame Kacy & Clayton's performances. While none of these are exactly new inventions, they're used to cocoon the duo's interplay and create fleeting senses of insularity, alienation or uncertainty — qualities that feel of our moment. That's one more way that these two ground their traditional inclinations in the here and now.

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Kacy & Clayton, Strange Country
Kacy & Clayton, Strange Country

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.