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Although Cordelia's Dad started as a standard punk-influenced guitar-bass-drums rock band, their repertoire from the beginning has consisted entirely of traditional American folk tunes. Although the electric instrumentation became less pronounced in their music after their first few albums, Cordelia's Dad have remained known for both their intensity and playfulness. This element is particularly evident on-stage, where lead singer Tim Eriksen will spin humorous stream-of-consciousness stories between and sometimes during songs and the band will occasionally close sets with versions of songs like the Ramones' "Commando" or Cheap Trick's "Surrender."
Those songs are actually perfectly in character for the trio, because Eriksen and percussionist/singer Peter Irvine's roots are in the western Massachusetts hardcore scene of the '80s. Both grew up in Northampton, MA, and gravitated toward punk music in high school and college. The pair teamed up in a succession of local bands, but as the decade progressed, Eriksen's family interest in traditional folk music began to reassert itself. Although Cordelia's Dad formed in 1988 as a standard punk thrash band, the group quickly turned to a brainstorm of Eriksen's: setting traditional American folk tunes like the ones found in the Anne and Frank Warner collection in a punky electric context. Fairport Convention and other British folk-rock bands had been doing the same with British folk music for decades, but the idea had never particularly caught on in America despite the clear line of history that can be traced from rock back through country and blues to the very songs Cordelia's Dad were resurrecting.
Most importantly, the trio — although conscientious about crediting their sources and scholarly in their explanations of the roots of the songs — did not approach the music with a purist desire for "authenticity." Like all good musicologists, they realized that the fascination of folk music lies in the variants and oddities, and besides often using the most inexplicable or obscure version they could find of any given song, the trio had no compunction against setting the words of one song to the tune of another, or even writing new lyrics or melodies for songs when necessary. Their first self-titled album was released in 1990 and documented the exploratory stages of this new direction. Although occasionally awkward and much more noisy than their later work, Cordelia's Dad is clearly an exciting and important album.
1992's How Can I Sleep?, produced by Dave Schramm (the Schramms, Yo La Tengo), is an enormous improvement over the debut and possibly the finest folk-rock album of the '90s. The folk tunes and rock arrangements are much better integrated and Eriksen's powerful voice is given more room to shine. One track, "Narragansett Bay," sounds like it could have been a hit single. The trio followed up that triumph with the Four Songs EP, their first all-acoustic record. Though played on much more traditional instruments, the songs still have the passion and immediacy of their electric work.
King left in 1993 and was replaced by Cath Oss, another Northampton resident who also sang with Eriksen in the vocal quartet Northampton Harmony. The first release by the new lineup was Joy Fun Garden, a 1994 EP released only in Europe. A cross between the acoustic Four Songs and electric How Can I Sleep?, Joy Fun Garden is an underrated release well worth searching out. The trio then released Comet, a live, in the studio recording that was entirely acoustic except for the nine-minute noisily electric closing track "Jersey City." Comet shows that Cordelia's Dad had taken the electric traditional folk idea as far as it could go at the time, and it was time to make some adjustments. The first change came with the self-released 1995 single "Three Snake Leaves," which contained two completely original songs done in the electric trio format. After the release of that single, the trio announced that Cordelia's Dad would be shifting to a strictly acoustic format, but that the trio would also be releasing original electric rock music under the band name Io. To bid farewell to Cordelia's Dad's electric phase, the group released 1996's Road Kill, a collection of occasionally lo-fi but consistently excellent live performances.
Fiddler Laura Risk joined Cordelia's Dad (but not Io) in 1997. The augmented quartet made their first full all-acoustic album, produced by indie rock curmudgeon Steve Albini, in 1998. Another entirely live studio recording, Spine is one of the group's finest records. Io, on the other hand, became something of a non-starter; although the electric trio played several gigs and released a single, "Leave a Light On" (which was later adapted for Cordelia's Dad's acoustic sets), not much came of the idea, and when another group claimed to have had the name first, the name and the concept were retired.
Risk departed the group after the recording of Spine and Eriksen solved the problem of no longer having a fiddler by learning the instrument himself along with his guitar and banjo duties. After the demise of Io, the group also began to re-incorporate electric instruments into their performances. However by the turn of the century, Cordelia's Dad became a part-time project for the three principals, who began to spend more time on individual pursuits. Eriksen moved to Minnesota and devoted himself to musicological research; in 2001, he released his first solo album and was appointed Visiting Professor of American Music at Dartmouth College. Irvine moved to Portland, OR, to attend law school, while Oss remained active in the western Massachusetts folk scene. Cordelia's Dad resumed in 2002, issuing their seventh album What It Is on Kimchee in April.