Album Review: Death Folk Country by Dorthia Cottrell
In a lot of ways, Dorthia Cottrell’s Death Folk Country is exactly what it says on the tin: country-folk music about death (or, that evokes death, depending on how specific–pedantic–you want to get).
Sure, that’s a fair summation of what you’re getting yourself into when listening to this record. You can keenly rely that by reciting the album’s title, you are informing a listener on all the need-to-know information going into the album. The tile is a mission statement for the album that it seeks to achieve in the just over 40-minute run time.
That said, there is a great deal of depth to this seemingly simple musical idea far worth exploring.
Dorthia, always a powerful, haunting voice, is primarily known for her work with RVA doom metal legends, Windhand. With them, she serves as the (somewhat grunge, ‘90s alternative inspired) melodic focal point which excavates and uncovers the band from sonic subterranean depths occupied by their fuzzed out, booming guitars/bass to exhume them onto solid, earthly ground.
On Death Folk Country, her voice serves a different role: dredging the river of sorrow for stories of loss and longing. The instrumentation, often deceptively simple, consists primarily of acoustic instruments and strings, some pianos or organs, and the occasional distorted electric guitar and bass, with some exceptions, such as “Midnight Boy,” where the distorted instruments feature much more prominently.
These instruments generally provide a mournful base onto which Cottrell and company build several-parted harmonies that further highlight the dejected suffering prominent in the lyrical themes of the record. This sonic pallet and the melodic composition here are very much evocative of traditional American folk, spiritual & religious music, and mid-century country music. Quite often, on top of this sonic framework, there are faint sounds of nature, screams, or weeping hidden behind the vocal harmonies too, which evoke equal parts horror and beauty. The result is an extremely (emotionally) heavy listen that raises the hairs on my neck.
On songs like the spiritual adjacent “Black Canyon,” I find myself interpreting the titular geological formation as the despair/darkness one experiences within oneself when enthralled by a substance, lifestyle, or person… as you could guess this is likely not to be good, as someone could be taken in by the supposed beauty and mystery of this new found obsession before the inevitable turn where one is consumed by it.
On the other hand, we have songs like “Effigy At The Gates Of Ur” which has a gorgeous Bonnie Raitt-esque sound and chord progression, but an extremely anguished heartbroken lyric, which recalls feelings of losing love and in turn abusing oneself. Think “I Can’t Make You Love Me” but make it Goth. (Joking.) The “burning bodies” discussed at the beginning of the song, to me, are the evidence of a broken love, immediately apparent to all those caring enough to observe them…. but one of the persons in this relationship doesn’t seem to care about this metaphorical pile of burning bodies, leaving the other person to deal with the consequences of this tragedy alone.
Stark contrasts such as this are the album’s strong suit.
Like other great dark folk and American traditional artists, Lingua Ignota and Ethel Cain, there is a stark simplicity and straightforwardness to the intensity of emotions conveyed in Dorthia’s work here. You are immediately and unflinchingly slammed with the sorrow of her approach on this album. Also, like the aforementioned artists, she pulls from the language of metal, dark wave, and gothic rock to explore a different approach to American songwriting tradition which seeks to re-examine the ideals inherent to the American Songbook: one that shows an ugliness and a weirdness to life in modern America, built on the backs of many an unflinching violence. Like a great Cormac McCarthy novel, this record is equal parts brutal and beautiful; if you’re willing to stomach it, you will be rewarded with one of the best folk records this year.
Death Folk Country is available now to stream and purchase now on all platforms, via Relapse Records. To find it in your preferred format, click here.