FOLK MUSIC WITH AN EDGE

In this feature, The Times' pop-music writers spotlight albums--old or new, obscure or mainstream--to which they've formed a special attachment. Album: "Potatoes: A Collection of Folk Songs From Ralph Records."

History: Founded in San Francisco in 1971, Ralph is the anti-music-business record company best known as the home of enigmatic surrealists the Residents. Favoring unorthodox marketing strategies to present its roster of subversive artists, Ralph denounces conventions of entertainment such as star persona and touring; consequently, the records it releases tend to be shrouded in an aura of mystery--and this haunting compilation is no exception. A collection of sea shantys, country ballads, folk songs, and homespun odds and ends, "Potatoes" features contributions from 13 artists including Devo's vocalist Mark Mothersbaugh, Snakefinger and the Residents.

Sound: "Potatoes" is an ideal marriage of opposites, combining as it does traditional folk music--which occasionally goes a bit sappy--and the Ralph army of cynical young moderns. The resulting hybrid could be described as folk music with an edge, or modern music with heart; whichever label you give it, this is one of the most moving records you're likely to hear this year. "Canto Del Pilon," an unbearably melancholy Venezuelan folk song performed by Maria Marquez and Frank Harris, shimmers with simple beauty, while the Residents' sad, sour treatment of the Hank Williams classic "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" wrings every drop of misery out of the song. In a lighter vein is Negativeland's Graham Kerr speaking in a foppish British accent as he explains how to make perfect scrambled eggs; Mark Mothersbaugh's goofy homage to Akron, Ohio, and a fascinating found artifact called "The Billy Bee Song" performed by an unidentified old woman probably long gone from this world. Speak/singing in the manner of an Appalachian storyteller, she spins the sorry tale of the mean man who drove her to drink. In the same mournful mood as "Canto del Pilon" is Terra Incognita's "Rank Stranger," a song associated with the legendary country duo the Stanley Brothers--one of whom the song is dedicated to. It's good to see that neither Carter Stanley, who died in 1966, nor the kind of music he loved has been forgotten.

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