My friend Steven and I were catching up over a few beers (actually, I’m pretty sure he was sipping a whiskey-coke) while I was back home last month, and “catching up” usually defaults to us swapping any and all musical anecdotes we’ve accrued since seeing each other last. Steven’s a huge aficionado and driving force behind the surging basement-punk/DIY scene. While I’ve been gravitating towards synth-pop, hip-hop, and electronic music as of late, we both share a deep, mutual admiration for ambient music and barebones folk artists.
After trading stories from our respective fields for a while, the conversation steered towards the latter of our two most common interests. Steven threw out the name Sibylle Baier, an artist I had a cursory knowledge of (probably due to Steven’s Twitter feed), but not someone I had ever analyzed, or even listened to for that matter. When I mentioned this to him, Steven put his drink down, stared at me in silence for a couple of seconds and then said: “It’s like Sharon Van Etten secretly existed forty years ago.” He further praised Baier by proclaiming that he had been falling asleep exclusively to her music for the past month, but I was already sold; Steven’s musical knowledge is beyond encyclopedic, and if the antecedent to one of the most formidable songwriters of this generation truly existed, I needed to hear her work.
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Sibylle Baier’s music wasn’t secretive because she operated on some obscure track of the 1970’s underground folk scene; it was secretive because she never released it at all. The German-born artist composed and recorded a collection of songs between 1970-1973, but kept the tapes for herself. In the early 2000’s, her son Robby compiled the recordings to give as gifts to family members. As story goes, he also slipped a copy to Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, who was so smitten by Baier’s music that he forwarded the collection to Orange Twin Records. By 2006, the label had put out Colour Green, the first proper, commercial release by Sibylle Baier.
Although recorded over the span of three years, Colour Green still reads as cohesive in the utmost sense of the word. Each song is short – a Polaroid snapshot more so than a Super 8 home movie – but Baier only needs a handful of minutes to distill her observations into soft, sweet confessionals delivered with the help of a finger-picked acoustic guitar. Album opener “Tonight” moves seamlessly from plain to plaintive, contextualizing the mundane act of returning home from work with an unseen emotional trauma that accompanies it. The subject is her confidant, calming her with simple dialogue, but the song is ever mournful, as if Baier goes through some variant of this on a nightly basis.
Like other masters of folk narratives, Baier’s songs are lyrically full and dense, despite their short length. Repetition often comes in the form of single words or short statements as opposed to the fully fleshed-out chorus of a pop song, allowing her to focus more on imagery and to deliver lines like “Oh I know further west these hills exist / Marked by apple trees marked by a straight brook / That leads me wherever I want it to” at the end of “I Lost Something in the Hills” and “William must have a chorus in his heart and lilacs in his shoes / William is the sweetest boy I ever saw” as the belated central thesis of “William.” Baier is also adept at subtly pushing and pulling at each song’s tempo, using the ensuing momentum to underscore lyrical content accordingly.
Colour Green closes with “Give Me a Smile,” the only number that noticeably deviates from Baier’s compositional formula. The customary finger-picked guitar intro blends fluidly into a cinematic string arrangement, augmenting Baier’s vocals with an element of majesty. But, ever the intuitive songwriter, Baier trims the song down to less than two minutes, barely displaying to the audience what she is capable of before silencing herself, ostensibly for good.
After Orange Twin released Colour Green nearly a decade ago, Sibylle Baier gained somewhat of a cult following that doesn’t seem to phase her in the slightest. Her son compiled a website to document various forms of media dedicated to her, but explicitly states that his mother will probably never have anything to do with its maintenance. Rumors are also floating around about a subsequent Baier album being released soon, although rumors like this one have the nasty habit of never coming true.
Colour Green is a rare release, certainly due to the obscurity of its origins and improbability of its release to the public, but also because it embodies a critical and beautiful contributor to twentieth century folk music. Admirers of Sharon Van Etten will undoubtedly feel at home listening to Baier’s soothing contralto and will hopefully unpack something more personally meaningful than a simple sonic correlation. At the very least, Steven was right: this is one of the most perfect bedtime albums.
Sam also writes for the excellent Dimestore Saints.