Regular folk, yet not

Times Staff Writer

Greg Graffin

"Cold as the Clay" (Anti-)

* * 1/2


Ramblin' Jack Elliott

"I Stand Alone" (Anti-)

* * *

FOLK music is a resilient strain, always thriving quietly in its secluded natural habitat but also capable of being carried occasionally into the mainstream. It's been getting a pretty good run lately, with Bruce Springsteen dusting off the Pete Seeger songbook, with a new underground of psychedelic folk visionaries attracting a young audience and with a generalized, something-in-the-air presence that seems to coalesce in times of political agitation.

There's probably no more unlikely a source for traditional folk than the Los Angeles headquarters of Epitaph Records, an independent label known for the hard-core punk embodied by its keynote band Bad Religion.

But on Tuesday, Epitaph's subsidiary Anti- Records will release albums by two folkies going in opposite directions: A 74-year-old icon ropes a few alt-rockers into his unique orbit, and a punk-rock hero more than 30 years his junior dips his toe into the waters of timeless tradition.

Greg Graffin, 41, Bad Religion's singer and guitarist, explains his departure in the CD booklet to "Cold as the Clay," which was produced by Bad Religion guitarist (and Epitaph owner) Brett Gurewitz and features backing by members of the Canadian band the Weakerthans on several songs. (Graffin and the group will share the bill at the Troubadour on Saturday.)

Turns out that the singer was steeped in old-time music as a child in Wisconsin and Indiana, where family gatherings included folk song singalongs. "Cold as the Clay" is a mix of public domain staples ("Omie Wise," "Little Sadie," et al.) and Graffin originals, delivered in two modes: electric folk-rock and acoustic old-timey.

Graffin's folk-rock was inspired by Neil Young, the Band and Gram Parsons (he includes a song Parsons used to play, "California Cotton Fields" by Nashville's Dallas Frazier and Earl Montgomery), but the originals actually tend more to Fairport Convention, with a decided Celtic touch in the melodies.

Graffin is faithful to folk music's role as the voice of the aggrieved and the neglected, and there's an authenticity to his portraits of people looking for a fight or an escape. But in his singing and arrangements, he takes a stand-up-straight-and-enunciate approach that keeps the music from coming fully to life.

Formality is certainly no problem for Ramblin' Jack Elliott, whose first album since 1999 connects with the pure troubadour tradition he's been plying since the 1950s. Of course, the Brooklyn-born protege of Woody Guthrie isn't a typical troubadour. A self-invented character, he virtually oozes personality and is blessed with the storyteller's gift.

"I Stand Alone," produced by Ian Brennan, removes him from the slick studio settings of his last couple of albums and puts his impetuousness and eccentricity front and center.

Many of the cuts are just voice and guitar, marked by Elliott's idiosyncratic time measurements and his creaking, croaking voice, which ranges from loopy to unexpectedly heartfelt.

When the big names come in -- mainly the trio of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, X's D.J. Bonebrake and Wilco's Nels Cline -- they offer some propulsion and tasty flavoring but stay entirely in the background.

Elliott (who plays at Tangier on Aug. 4 and the Largo on Aug. 5) has recorded a lot of these songs before, but from the playful vamp of Hoagy Carmichael's "Hong Kong Blues" to the prairie howl of "Leaving Cheyenne," he tells each story and finds each feeling as if for the first time.

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