Folk music is an interesting thing. It’s fairly simple, it’s been fairly stagnant in terms of its stylistic evolution, and it’s fairly difficult to label exactly what distinguishes amazing folk music from your average folk tune. I take the approach, like Justice Stewart’s famous description about obscenity: when it comes to good folk, I know it when I see it. With Mellen’s 3-song debut EP, Last The Year, I hear it.
Coming to us from Georgetown University, Mary Ellen Funke — aka Mellen — has been turning heads around campus for a while now with her full band Mellenfolly (get it?). With that group, she sounds purely sultry over wailing violin lines on “You Don’t See“ and meanderingly rouses on top of a plucky banjo line in “Moving Slowly.” She even shows the ability to jam along pretty stellarly during a live performance of a song called “Golden Trout” (watch the last 15 seconds of this and smile).
But as enjoyable as those songs are, she’s even stronger as a solo act. In an interview with Georgetown’s radio station, she confesses that she “loves slow songs,” emphasizing a strong affinity for the personal and intimate, and her album backs up that contention. The first track, “Nothing Comes To Pass,” is a cooing, touching introduction to the EP. It’s fragile but assertive, reminding me that in that same interview she mentioned falling in love with music for the first time when hearing Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. “Green Glass Table” has a bit more of a pop formula with it’s highly-structured vocal melody, but the finger-picked guitar lines tempers it to something that is still delicate. What really makes this song, though, are the occasional harmonies that are given enough of spotlight to truly steal the show. The final track, “The Wanderer,” plays like Death Cab For Cutie’s “A Lack Of Color.” It’s soft and occasionally sobering, but there’s something hopeful in it’s tone. By the time the song is over, I ask myself who would ever wander away from this wonder of a songstress.
And the best part? She seems so charming in real life. Her Bandcamp asks that you download the EP “FOR FREE!” as she guarantees, “I don’t mind. Not even a wee bit,” and she calls out people named Sacha Millet and Connor Brogan “for being inspiring and shit.” Ultimately, both in her music and beyond it, she comes across as an earnest, soulful girl who deserves to have her songs heard.
*Because I was so touched by this EP, I couldn’t find a way to weasel in a Dr. Funke’s 100% Natural Good-Time Family Band joke, but I’m sure it’s there. Feel free to leave one in the comments.
STREAM: Mellen – Last The Year