Webster's tells us that a folk song is "a song passed by oral tradition from one singer or generation to the next, often existing in several versions." In other words, folk music isn't the sole property of Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, and it didn't die when Dylan went electric. As the title 20th Century Folk Selections suggests, guitarist Todd Clouser sees this set of classics from several generations as "folkloric in nature." And when you compare the music to the above definition, all the boxes are checked in fine, fine style.
Ironically, things start with Malvina Reynolds' indictment of subdivisions everywhere, "Little Boxes" -- made famous by the aforementioned Pete Seeger, but presented here in a format that would make Seeger's beard fall out. Clouser's got it turned up to 11 here, not just with his own strutting lines but with a rampant jazz/metal arrangement that attacks the suburban concept with all the disdain Reynolds' lyrics contained, plus a couple gallons more. And when Clouser's done shredding us like newly-picked cabbage, Mark Aanderud's just-off-kilter piano solo hauls you up and gets you dancing while Aaron Cruz' bass and Adam Meckler's trumpet flash by like stunned traffic cops. The results are utterly awesome, and they present the piece in a context younger generations can hear and say, "Okay, I get it now!"
Clouser's treatments don't just show his affection for the source material (even as he takes it from the blender to the microwave); he also shows his regard for its creators. The wistfulness inherent in Buddy Holly's "Everyday" is expanded in Clouser's version to include the suddenness in which Holly was taken from us. Clouser pays the same respect to Kurt Cobain that he does to Holly by maintaining the desolation in what could be called Cobain's last words to us, "All Apologies." The chaotic opening of Neil Young's "The Needle and the Damage Done" transmits the awful shock of losing someone to drug addiction, but then Clouser offers a "rebuttal" of sorts by taking us deep inside a junkie's jangled mind on Lou Reed's "Heroin." It's as raw and bloody as a butchered steer, but just like any other car accident, you simply cannot look away.
Clouser's sailing rendition of "Gratitude" contains all the attitude of the Beastie Boys' original while keeping it inside the blazing interpretive structure that keeps 20th Century Folk Selections so riveting. That structure includes a psychedelic-cum-punk workup of the traditional work song "Pay Me My Money Down," and closes with a reverent take on another album-closer, Pearl Jam's "Release." 10 is one of those mind-bending discs that will live forever, and Clouser's version lets us know the album's profound effect on him. According to the liner notes, Clouser plans to put out a new Folk Selections record every year. Between the eye for interpretation he's displayed here and the blistering band he's constructed, I'm not sure what's bigger: My admiration for this disc, or my anticipation of the next one.