Do they have front porches in outer space? Because Plastic Bag in the Tree, the first and quite possibly only album by the Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble, blends down-home guitars and spacey synths as if they were recorded between episodes of “Firefly”. Or, perhaps more likely, between Neighborhood Watch Association meetings: headed by Chris Funk, of Decemberists and “Colbert Report” fame, the Ensemble includes many of his Portland neighbors, who reportedly held loose, impromptu jams on the Funks’ front porch. The result is an album of instrumentals (Does Funk sing? He does everything else.) that blend the organic and the synthetic in a way that’s not necessarily unique, but weirdly charming all the same. The Ensemble won’t ever be anyone’s day job, but it’s a quaint diversion.
The songs’ guitars, courtesy of Funk and George T. Drag, have a dusty wagon trail stateliness that’s usually at odds with the album’s extraterrestrial blips and squiggles– the “sound shapes,” as the liners call them. Opener “Chained to the Pole” could easily provide the expository text crawl for a homemade re-shoot of Star Wars, and “The System of Your Choice” sounds like two R2 units gettin’ it on. The pensively plucked acoustic theme on “Can’t See the Moon? Cut Down the Tree” is interrupted by what sounds like the rush of an unsealed airlock, but live instrumentation doesn’t always connote earthliness on Plastic Bag, nor do the sonic baubles always suggest spaceship mechanics. Victor Paul Nash’s halting trumpet on “Sleep at Last!” sounds like ladies and gentlemen floating in space, while Mark Petty’s forlorn horn makes Ray Davies’ “I Go to Sleep” seem as curious as “Fantastic Planet”. The Ensemble also cover Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”, but even better is Radiohead’s “Amnesiac/Morning Bell” performed on banjo and dulcimer, which effectively deflates the original’s posthuman pretensions.
By “Not Always Your Best Friend”, which is punctuated by mechano-canine barks, the album starts to seem like a shaggy-dog campfire story– overlong and a little repetitive. But Plastic Bag in the Tree is not the space detritus it could easily have been. Some judicious editing might have pared the album down to a more manageable length, but would have also gone against the spirit of the endeavor, whose endearing traits are its loose and loopy geniality, its pick-up session informality, its head-beyond-the-clouds whimsy.
Chris Funk and Jenny Conlee of The Decemberists delivered a unique performance with their side-project band, Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble, at Club NME Los Angeles with Fred Perry Subculture last night (June 6).
The six-piece band swapped a wide array of instruments including banjos, horns, dulcimers, xylophones and violins during their set, which was conducted by a six-foot gorilla.
“This is Sebastian the animatronic gorilla,” Funk told the audience. “He’s fueled by Patron tequila.”
The band performed distinctive instrumental covers of songs by Massive Attack and Lindsey Buckingham during their set, as well as a couple of experimental extended jams that alternated between spacey and folky.
“This is our farewell tour, and our gorilla Sebastian is looking for a new gig,” quipped Funk before saying goodnight.
After the show, Funk told NME.COM his inspiration for forming the band. “I moved into a house in Portland and found out that a lot of my neighbours were closet musicians, so we put this band together and took the show on the road,” he said.
“We’re happy to be here at Club NME to turn the Brits around and show them what’s up,” he joked.
We have news of a Decemberist going it alone, at least for a home recording release and a string of West Coast dates as the Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble. The guitarist who dueled with Colbert Frampton in a battle of the shred offers up Plastic Bag In The Tree, a collection of tunes featuring mainly Mr. Funk, along with some of his Portland neighbors, featuring covers (Radiohead, Fleetwood Mac, the Pretenders, Massive Attack) and a couple of originals. No shanties here; the Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble specializes in acid-tinged instrumental folk ditties which are, as Chris jokes, “good intermittent music for NPR’s All Things Considered!” Find a taste from the record below. We like this song’s tuning, which he nicked f
rom John Fahey; tab fiends, he “thinks” it’s a low C (CGCGCE). – Stereogum
Until now, Chris Funk’s claim to fame as a Decemberist was getting swept away in a whirlwind of truth (oh, and playing guitar and more on all those records people seem to like). So, in striking out on his own, Funk called in backup, recruiting the help of Thom Yorke, Chrissie Hynde, Liz Fraser, and Lindsey Buckingham. Well, sorta.
May 15, Funk’s Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble will release Plastic Bag in the Tree via Portland’s Hush Records (aka the Decemberists’ original home). It’s a collection of capital-F Funk originals and a mess of covers, with the ensemble tackling the likes of Radiohead, Massive Attack, the Pretenders, and Fleetwood Mac. Far from the bombast of his other band, Flash Hawk could be described as bleary acid-folk written, as Funk says on the band’s MySpace page, “in a haze fueled by fellowship, libations and other unmentionables.”
Flash Hawk will take it to the streets on a few West Coast dates in between Decemberists tours. Peep MySpace for a gushing stream of tracks, including a take on Massive Attack’s Mezzanine standout/House theme song “Teardrop”.
You know those house parties that inevitably wind up as drunken 3 a.m. jams? Imagine that scenario, except instead of your glassy-eyed friends playing the same four chords on beat-up guitars and bongos, they’re shredding the hurdy gurdy, a hammered dulcimer, and something called a saz. That’s the gist of this one-off from Decemberists guitar/strings guy Chris Funk, who discovered upon moving to Portland’s Mississippi neighborhood that he’d lucked into talented music-geek neighbors. They’d get together for occasional parlor jams at Funk’s place, and someone had the good sense to hit record. The resulting 15-track album comprises hazy instrumental originals like “Give Back the Recycle Bin Now!” plus a handful of semi-obscure covers from Radiohead, the Pretenders, and others, the most recognizable being a vox-free version of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop.” Genre-hopping from honky-tonk to raga to eerie circus music, the album’s shambling spacescapes allow the mind to wander into whack territory without the benefit of a vocal guide (except when the finale of “The Turtle’s Voice Rests in Peace Just Outside Salem” turns into an operatic hymnal). Sure, Plastic Bag in the Tree is a mess at times â€” 3 1/2 minutes of computer-generated spacewalks can become grating. But something about Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble’s combination of ancient instruments and ego-less playful experimentation is also downright transcendent. â€” Maya Kroth
[DRUGGY FOLK] Most people know Chris Funk as a Decemberist. (He’s the one who runs around onstage with giant fake whale jaws.) But his NoPo neighbors know him as a jovial fellow who enjoys lazy-day porch-sittin’ and string-pickin’. And it was just such recreational activities that led to a new Funk-led project, Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble, which he describes as “all instrumental sorta acid folk music, sorta.”
Strangely enough, Flash Hawk’s first release, Plastic Bag in the Tree, lives up to Funk’s characterization. The collaborative product of musically inclined neighborsâ€”among them Point Juncture, WA trumpeter Victor Paul Nash, multi-instrumentalists Ruby Janes and Janis Murphy and a dog named Fangâ€”Plastic Bag is a home-recorded, folk-centric amalgamation of covers, jams and oddities (one track, entitled “Chris Walla: Duet for Moog and Hurdy Gurdy in G Major-ish,” is just that). And, from one weird corner to the next, the album is, at the very least, mesmerizing. It feels like waking up from a drug-induced nap to find yourself in the back yard on a sunny, breezy day.
The first two tracks seem reasonable enough: “Chained to the Pole” has an eerie, Neil Young-ish vibe and a spacey, trumpet-led interlude, and the following “Texola Waltz”‘s old-timey strings would feel at home on any Norfolk & Western album. But then, out of nowhere, Flash Hawk covers Massive Attack’s “Teardrop.” And it would seem odd, except thatâ€”with meandering pedal steel and wheezing moog in place of Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser’s vocalsâ€”it works. Likewise, FHPE’s dulcimer- and banjo-led rendition of Radiohead’s “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” could be mistaken for an original.
But the goofiness that Funkâ€”who contributes moog, banjo, mandolin, dobro, pedal steel, hurdy gurdy and omnichordâ€”exudes onstage with the Decemberists shines through as well. Listening to “Give Back the Recycle Bin Now!,” for instance, one can almost see a vaudevillian play being acted out using oversized gestures and exaggerated expressions. The track (along with a few others) carries a Ween-like air of amusement. Perhaps that’s because the albumâ€”and the band itselfâ€”was born out of good times. Like a summer afternoon swilling beers with friends, Plastic Bag is rich with slightly wasted moments of beauty, humor, drowsiness, even melancholy (the sun has to go down sometime). It sounds like the result of band geeks dropping acid, andâ€”considering Hush Records’ claims it was conceived in “a haze fueled by fellowship, libations and other unmentionables”â€”maybe it is.
Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble is a space-bluegrass (you know, like ‘space rock’ but down-home bluegrass-style) ‘supergroup’ brought together by the Decemberists’ affable multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk. ‘Super’ not because of celebrity status, but because of the group’s size (15, if you count pets) and the unusual circumstances under which it formed â€“ Funk moves to a new neighborhood, realizes many of his neighbors are musicians, and invites them over for jam sessions. ‘Super’ too for the freshness of this whole endeavor. Not just the fun covers of unlikely candidates â€“ Massive Attack, Amnesiac-era Radiohead, the Kinks and Fleetwood Mac â€“ but how unique both those and the originals are. These may be ‘jams’, but directed towards a fresh new/old style. They’re playing around with instruments â€“ Funk alone plays everything from moog to hurdy gurdy â€“ but also with genres. An old-fashioned, rustic vibe is just as strong as a forward-to-the-future one (moog never hurts in that regard). One hell of a party.
When he’s not squaring off against Steven Colbert in intergalactic guitar battles, Chris Funk is busy touring with his band the Decemberists. In his downtime he’s managed to cobble together a rather eclectic collection of musically inclined neighbors â€” including Carson Ellis, who makes the Decemberists’ album art â€” for a new group called Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble. Born of weekly living-room jams, the band functions somewhat like a limited-edition flavor of your favorite breakfast cereal: it’s a pleasantly novel break from an already beloved formula. Plastic Bag in the Tree (Hush), with its banjos, dulcimers, and steel guitars, could be a country cousin to the urbane instrumentalism of Friends of Dean Martinez and dances off the front porch with surreal covers of Radiohead, Fleetwood Mac, and Massive Attack. And Funk performs in a gorilla mask. Go figure. (Nathan Baker)
Sometimes a record sounds exactly like what it is. (Sometimes, of course, it doesn’t. At all.) Plastic Bag in the Tree, a brand-spankin’ new album from Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble, sounds like a bunch of pals sitting around playing all kinds of things: delicate Massive Attack and Radiohead covers (“Teardrop,” “Amnesiac/Morning Bell”), meandering instrumentals, quirky originals and seemingly whatever comes into their collective head. Even when what comes into that head is “Chris Walla: Duet for Moog and Hurdy Gurdy in G Major-ish.” Many of the songs have great titles, but this name-check of the Death Cab for Cutie guitarist/producer might take the cake.
As it turns out, FHPE pretty much is a bunch of pals sitting around â€” or at least neighbors. It’s an accidental group that was born when Chris Funk (of The Decemberists) moved into a new house in Portland and sat around on his porch on summer evenings, playing various things. “He soon found out,” the press release explains, “there was in fact an unusual amount of musical activity on his block.” Funk enlisted his neighbors, “closet folksmen and recovering band geeks,” and is now bringing them to town (or maybe just some of them; there are 14 players listed in the credits for Plastic Bag). This is music utterly perfect for Sam Bond’s: playful, flexible, moody, classic and timely at once, setting things like banjos and Moogs side by side in a way that’s almost giggle-inducing. But you wouldn’t be laughing at Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble; this is a good-natured, good-times joke they’re sharing with us.
After listening to the first two tracks of Plastic Bag In The Tree, the average listener will probably think to themselves, “this sounds like the kind of music that a bunch of friends getting around and jamming together on the back porch might make.” Although it’s a slight bit more high-fidelity than most picking and grinning projects (it does contain a load of synths and even some horns, after all), Flash Hawk Parlour Ensemble is indeed just that, actually. Chris Funk, who is also the lead guitarist for The Decemberists (and also the man who guitar-dueled with Stephen Colbert on an infamous episode of his show) has assembled a bunch of neighborhood friends for this batch of layered folk-ish tracks that are charming and at times completely surprising.
Right about now might be the best time to mention that the group (which includes contributions from roughly fifteen people) also has several instrumental cover songs on the album, and they include two well-known tracks by modern artists and two well-known ones by classic ones as well. And so, after kicking off with a couple tracks that include everything from pitter-patter drum machine programming bumping up against acoustic guitars and buzzing analogue synths and horns to southwestern-styled ho-downs, the group sets upon their first remake. Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” might not have been such an odd choice a couple years ago, but given how many times it’s been used both in film (and now as the theme for a rather popular television series), the slightly ramshackle cover version doesn’t feel quite as interesting as it should. That said, the group does an amazing version of Radiohead’s “Amnesiac / Morning Bell,” where stripped-down slide guitars, banjos, chimes, and vibraphones evoke a new fragile spirit in the track that pulls something new out of the aching melodies.
The original songs on the album veer back and forth between crammed-with-instrumentation to stripped-down, and the group is actually at their best during the latter occasions, where they can breath a little better. The country-tinged “Now Always My Best Friend” is a perfect example, with slightly-rough acoustic guitar backed up with more slide guitar and some upright bass plucks that provide just the perfect amount of background wobble and wispiness. Heck, you know this isn’t a typical jam band when a track like the aptly-titled “Chris Walla: Duet For Moog And Hurdy Gurdy In G Major-Ish” slams together modulated futuro-weirdness with the wheezy archaic instrument. I’ve jammed around a lot, and while it may have gotten this wild, it’s never come together in quite the peculiar and entertaining ways that the Flash Hawk Parlour Ensemble have put together here. It’s not for everyone, but if you put this on next time you’re sitting on your stoop, you may very well wonder if your julep has been spiked with something.
s the lead guitarist for hometown favorites The Decemberists, Chris Funk is not your typical guitar hero. Although he can duke it out like a champ on electric guitar against Stephen Colbert and Peter Frampton, Funk’s new project, Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble, is an exquisite blend of chamber pop, folk and country. Wisely, he avoids lyrics on any of the songs and thereby sidesteps most direct comparisons to The Decemberists.
How did this project come about? It seems that Mr. Funk moved into the burgeoning Mississippi neighborhood a few years ago and took a shining to playing instruments on his porch. On some of those long summer nights, which are great for walking the neighborhood, he caught the ears of his musically inclined neighbors. Pretty soon there were weekly jam sessions in his living room, and eventually Funk wanted to record some of the ideas they had come up with. According to the band bio, “This recording documents those times in an array of cover songs and original ‘jams’ written in a haze fueled by fellowship, libations and other unmentionables.” The musicians on the album are Chris Funk, Fang (the dog) and their neighbors. Which in total makes up about 13 people (including one song with Death Cab For Cutie’s guitar whiz Chris Walla) on a vast assortment of instruments.
What do we hear on the album’s 13 choice cuts? Guitars (mostly acoustic, some pedal steel, and just a lil’ electric), banjo, dobro, some horns, a little upright bass, drums (both acoustic and machine-based), a few wordless oohs and aahs, and some other tinkling sounds that aren’t quite placeable. What do they sound like all mixed together? Well, Funk has described it as “good intermittent music for NPR’s All Things Considered!” But even more so, it sounds like those long, hot, lazy summer nights. It’s the musical equivalent of porch-settin’ in the neighborhood, sipping on a mint julep or a cool Hefeweizen while watching the sun slowly go down behind downtown.
Plastic Bag in the Tree’s 15 tracks include five covers, including Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” and Radiohead’s “Amnesiac/Morning Bell.” The rest of the tracks are originals, but there isn’t one obviously best song. Instead, the original “jams” and the covers all flow seamlessly from one to the next, and the listener gets the impression that what is on the album isn’t all that different from what this group of friends sounded like on Funk’s porch two summers ago.
Of course, the Massive Attack and Radiohead covers are sure to be instant faves for the indie-rock set, but the rest of the album isn’t to be discounted as mere background music. The album is punctuated by open-tuned guitars, which give the songs a kind of wavy, almost droning quality. Take the album opener “Chained to a Pole.” It starts with some gentle guitars, backed by a light drum machine that sounds like it’s from an old organ’s built-in beat selection. About halfway through the song enter a few electric guitar notes, a squiggly keyboard sound (probably a Moog) and then a brass section, playing a separate melody over the top of the main guitar line. In the background, we can also hear a military snare rolling along too.
“Give Back the Recycle Bin Now!” is more of a standard country-sounding song, with a dobro starting it off, but also featuring occasional accents from a way-out-there keyboard. Add in some spiciness from a banjo, pedal steel and what sounds like a lead Theremin line. This is more of a sipping-whiskey-from-the-jug song, and makes for a fun departure stylistically from the rest of the album.
There’s a nice, hazy ’70s sunset vibe to Plastic Bag in the Tree, thanks to the wonderfully distinctive sound of the Moog synth, and the otherwise primarily acoustic arsenal of stringed instruments. It’s quite an assortment of sounds, and makes for great repeated listening, especially if you want an instrumental album that’s not a jazz wank-a-thon or an insomnia-curing New Age record.
The live band, a kind of supergroup of local indie-rockers, is playing a string of West Coast dates in the next two weeks. With members from Horse Feathers, Talkdemonic, Point Juncture, WA, and of course The Decemberists, Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble should be something to see live.
A couple weeks ago I got an email from Chris Funk of the Decemberists mentioning his new music project Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble and noting they had an upcoming show at the Doug Fir. I said I was up for the show and we joked a bit about him having to put me on the guest list – only the reason this is called Not on the Guest List isn’t because no one ever offers, it’s mostly because of events similar to what happened when I arrived at the Doug Fir.
Scene: I present my ID.
“You’re not on the guest list.”
“Are you sure? I’m supposed to be.”
“You’re not on the guest list. Do you hear me?”
The Hot Knives and I joked about mutual not on the guest list experiences while boarding YACHT on a yacht and it pretty much defines my life as it did with Marcos dos Santos when he was hoofing it as a music photographer and would show up at venues and not be on the guest list even though he was supposed to be. And in the song, even though the door woman saw him all the time and knew he was supposed to be on the list, she wouldn’t relent and let him in.
In Glasgow it got to the point where Brian, the Barfly’s manager wouldn’t even check the list when I’d appear in the doorway – he’d just wave me in as he knew I was supposed to be on it, but more often than not someone would space in adding my name.
So anyway, after a run around we got in and I went up and accosted Chris for failing to add my name. He insisted on giving me money for the hassle which was comical. I denied his first offer of ten dollars, but accepted the five when he said I could buy a drink with it. Good idea!
They took the stage after Horsefeathers full of strings and complete with a mini-gong! As it must be mentioned, onstage Decemberists participants included Jenny Conlee (who’s in Flash Hawk full time) and Colin Meloy. There is also a Point Juncture WA member. (Side note: According to Cary of PDX Pop Now, who I chatted with this past First Thursday – a Point Juncture WA song was licensed just a little while ago after appearing on a PDX Pop Now compilation.)
What I remember most was the haphazard encore that almost didn’t seem as though it’d happen, but then they trooped out onto the green lit stage and the focal point of the ensemble was definitely their gorilla mascot who took his place behind the drum kit. He was guided on and off stage by Chris with the help of other band mates too – it was almost like the blind leading the blind – that’s how smooth sailing their entrance and exit were. He could barely stay upright while providing the backing beats.
Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble with their multitude of instruments and musicians are clearly about having fun and making music with friends, which is fun to feel apart of which one does in some sense when watching them live.
More news from the covers & remixes front. On May 15, Decemberist guitarist Chris Funk will release â€˜Plastic Bagâ€™ by the Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble. The album will feature a number of covers including Radioheadâ€™s â€˜Morning Bellâ€™â€¦ the Amnesiac version.