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Not So Dark 

by ELIZABETH STRAUCH & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & L & lt;/span & istening to Hillfolk Noir is kind of like visiting a movie theater from the days of yore. A black and white film reel flickers images across a tattered screen. There's no surround sound; instead, the audio echoes narrowly from the metallic horn of a phonograph. The theater is shrouded in cigarette smoke. On the screen, an antagonist laughs and asks, "Don't you know the underworld? There's no friendship party ... no meeting! You can come, but you can't leave!"

Frontman Travis Ward is a fan of cinema -- that last quote is an overdub from the 1980s Shaw Brothers kung fu film Flag of Iron that loops in the background of his song of the same name, while Ward sits in a chair playing acoustic guitar, recalling the kind of twangy backwoods you'd find in Deliverance (that is, of course, if you switched out the banjo). "I am very visual with how I write the music," says Ward. It's visual for the listener, too. At times, Ward's warped guitar notes trot like a slow horse right into a scene from a low-budget spaghetti western. Other songs contain bluesy riffs that would complement your bathtub gin. The opening of "Belly Up to the Sun" is like a gothic folk version of the Doors' "The End" -- and the lyrics practically set up a prequel to Apocalypse Now, describing a hopeless night before leaving for Vietnam.

It makes sense that Hillfolk Noir provides the soundtracks for two Boise-produced films (most recently Ibid, a selection in this year's SXSW -- South by Southwest Film Festival -- as well as the Munich International Film Festival). The way Ward formed the band was one of cinematic skill. Mike Waite walked his upright bass over to the dark folk genre after playing with bands like Lowbelly, another Boise band that formed out of a love for cartoon soundtracks and Henry Mancini, but which eventually evolved into an acoustic sextet. Guitarist Sam Merrick has an impressive punk-rock background (the Nymphs, the Leaving Trains) that brings an edge Ward was looking for in producing lo-fi electric folk. And of course, the romantic plotline comes with Ward's wife, Alison Ward, who picked up a cocktail kit one day and expertly added the simple beat backings, as well as vocals. Ward himself has a pretty neat resum & eacute;, including playing bass with Built To Spill's Doug Martsch on his solo album Now You Know.

On its latest album, Diggin' Songs, there are a couple of tunes about holes in the ground, butchers in cemeteries and other deathly subject matter. Still, Hillfolk's untraditional three-part harmony and good-naturedness -- along with a heaping dose of alt-country -- will keep you looking toward the light in front of you on the screen.

Hillfolk Noir with the Hothouse Scalpel and Tony the Tiger at Empyrean on Tuesday, June 17, at 8 pm. $7. Call 838-9819.
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