In Brief: A strong debut from a buzzworthy folk/country act that just needs a little more variance in tempos and song styles to push them into the realm of greatness.
“Why, this stuff’s made in New York City!”
“NEW YORK CITY??!?!?!”
“Get a rope.”
Does anyone else remember those old commercials for Pace Picante Sauce? They’re memetic enough in my mind that the above exchange is pretty much my go-to joke whenever anyone mentions traveling to, or being from, New York City. The idea behind it was that they were selling something meant to evoke images of the American Southwest, and that a competitor brand manufacturing their product in the Big Apple was an indicator of them being some big, heartless corporation out of touch with the local flavor needed to make the product believable. If you wanted it done right, it should be made in a decidedly more “southwestern” place, such as San Antonio, Texas. (Never mind that the best place to get truly authentic salsa would probably be Mexico – but that’s the advertising business for you.)
Why do I bother bringing up a decades-old commercial? Well, the incredulous reaction of the cowboys in said commercial is sort of how I’d expect your average country music fan to react upon discovering that The Lone Bellow, a strongly country-influenced band who began to make a name for themselves over the past few years by touring with The Civil Wars, actually hails from Brooklyn, New York. It’s not something that the trio tries to hide by any means – it’s right there in the first track of their self-titled debut album. And Brooklyn, or NYC in general, is actually quite an ideal place to be from if you’re an indie band. Which The Lone Bellow sort of is. But they’ve got a lot more traditional influence than a lot of the indie bands bringing twangy folk music back into the spotlight these days, and listening to their album, you’re more likely to note that it’s clean and well-polished than that it’s gritty or underground in any way. It’s not the glossy country-pop you’d expect from someone like Shania Twain, by any means. But, it ain’t the Drive-By Truckers, either. I can understand being a little suspicious, given their origin. I’d say the same if a full-on indie rock band claimed to be from Nashville or something. (And I can think of a few such bands.) But, setting stereotypes aside, it doesn’t take long to notice that The Lone Bellow has an incredible knack for songwriting and showmanship, and that it’s possible to demonstrate both while still sounding relatively mainstream.
Just looking at the band’s three-member configuration, the most obvious comparison that comes to mind is Lady Antebellum. And while these two men and one woman do often sound great wailing out a weepy country song together, it’s important to note that the woman isn’t in the spotlight most of the time – she’s a supporting player. The band actually started as a solo project by lead singer Zach Williams, who met his songwriting partner Brian Elmquist in college down in Lynchburg, Virginia. (Now there’s a convincingly Southern-sounding place.) Rounding out the trio is mandolin player Kanene Doheney Pipkin, who duets with Zach on a couple songs, but otherwise she and Brian mostly stick to backup and harmony vocals. While a lot of the group’s songs start of small and gentle, like their kindred spirits in the (sadly now defunct) Civil Wars, they tend to bring them to bigger and bolder climaxes, occasionally bringing to mind the fiery, folksy stomp of a good Mumford & Sons tune, or even a contemporary Southern Gospel act. The album may be a little short on upbeat tracks, but the ones that are present, plus the smoldering performances on several of the ballads, make it easy to imagine a crowd who had never heard of them eating out of the group’s hand by the end of one or two songs performed as an opening act. And while the subject matter often hits on the familiar themes of romantic heartbreak and striving to make the most of one’s days on Earth that you could expect to hear from a lot of country and folk songs, this never comes across as cloying or calculated. Occasionally it’s a bit heavy-handed, but the group maintains a hefty amount of charm throughout the album’s eleven tracks, even saving one of their most upbeat and just plain fun tracks for a surprise ending (and then an incredibly off-kilter one for an iTunes bonus download). For me, personally, it was almost too easy to glom onto the crowd-pleasing up-tempo performances and overlook a lot of the ballads at first, particularly because so many of them start out in such hushed tones that you’d never mistake them for something instantly catchy. But The Civil Wars’ Barton Hollow was almost entirely made up of ballads, and that record was freaking amazing, so given time, I’ve really started to fall in love with a great number of this group’s softer songs as well. I wouldn’t say that the two groups are alike, or that liking one immediately guarantees liking the other, though you will notice some similarities in their softer songs, due to the strong vocal collaboration between group members, and also the guiding hand of producer Charlie Peacock, who aims for clarity without excessive pop embellishment, and intimacy without muddling the sound as so many indie folk producers might, and this works just as well as it did for the Civil Wars. Fans of the recent “folk revivalist” movement who don’t mind a group wearing their distinctly Southern influences on their sleeves would definitely do well to check these guys out, even if you’re afraid of the typical country-pop that you might hear on the radio (which this definitely isn’t).
1. Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold
The record gets off to an incredible start with what may well be the biggest “bring the house down” moment in their live shows. The energetic chorus – which you’re going to be hearing a lot of – kicks off immediately, and the song only picks up steam from there, hitting with the force of a freight train despite the dire situation describes in the lyrics. The song is about a poor couple trying to make ends meet in Brooklyn, and one gets the sense that they’re both fish out of water in this scenario, doing their best to scrape by, and resolving that they can make it as long as they have each other. Repetition is favored over details here, for the most part, and that would hurt the song if it didn’t seem to grow louder and more defiant each time that chorus comes around, with all three voices reaching an excited fervor, and the buzzing electric guitar feeling just as much at home as the mandolin in this formidable country-rock hybrid. Putting this track first on the album risks misleading the listener – imagine if The Civil Wars had started with “Barton Hollow” and then everything else on their album was noticeably more mellow. You just have to readjust your expectations after this one – other songs will reach their own thrilling climaxes, but they won’t start off with a bang and sprint to the finish line like this one.
2. Tree to Grow
If we have to go into “ballad mode” so quickly, then I’m glad the group does it with their most compelling example of one. The way that the group moves from a simple guitar strum to a lush folk arrangement complimented by mandolin and fiddle, keeping the pace steady but waiting until you’re at the emotional core of the song to wallop you with the intense group vocals, is commendable for its restraint and how amazing that release feels once it gets there. It helps that the song is one of sympathy, as a man going through a rough patch with his partner promises her, “I’ll never leave, I’ll always stay/I pray on all that I keep safe.” The way Brian and Kanene harmonize with Zach as he makes this vow is enough to get you all teary-eyed, especially knowing the backstory of how the band got started (Zach’s wife was temporarily paralyzed after breaking her back in a horse riding accident – and now I feel really terrible for saying “backstory”), and then the real kicker comes in at the chorus: “A tree I’ll grow to let you know/My love is older than my soul.” It’s relatively easy to write songs about relationships not working out – and this album has its fair share of them – but writing a good one that promises fidelity while acknowledging just how much tenacity it can take sometimes, is a truly rare feat.
3. Two Sides of Lonely
It may seem odd for me to blame a single song for being a “speed bump” on an album where most of the songs have slower tempos, but I think having this one so early in the track listing is what caused me to tune out too early during my first few listens. Despite Peacock’s usually clear production, the beginning of this one seems really faint and muffled, which I supposed adds to its “lonely” atmosphere, but we’re way too early in the album for this sort of thing. The setting of a graveyard in a bitter New York winter is appropriate for a song about the depressing reality of a couple whose love for each other has grown cold. In that sense, the songwriting reminds me of a few of The Civil Wars’ darker songs. But the pace of it is all out of whack – it just sort of trudges on, with old school country-inspired harmonies, but never quite finding a hook that lands despite the three voices playing beautifully off of each other. Despite some intriguing lyrics, the song doesn’t quite connect with me because it’s chorus doesn’t really make sense. “Two sides of lonely/One is hard, one is duty/Two sides of lonely/One’s in the grave, and the other should be.” I don’t really understand the two “sides” he’s describing and how they are different – it all sounds like an unmitigated depressing situation to me, rather than an interesting Catch-22. And I’m fine with songs laying it bare about depressing situation – I just think Zach should have dropped the “two sides” premise entirely and found a better chorus to sum up his feelings on the issue.
4. You Never Need Nobody
Following immediately after “Two Sides of Lonely”, this song, with pretty much the same tempo, the same half-drunken sway you’d expect from a good country ballad, and the same sad tone to it, initially seems like a mistake. The true mistake is in the track order, though – bump “Two Sides” to later in the album, and this one would make a fine third track. Since the group’s vocals rise and fall and hit these intense climaxes where they stop and start again, it’s easy to get swept away in the almost Gospel-influenced fervor of it, even if the truth is that this is another lonely ballad about a woman who did some guy wrong. I’ll try to avoid nitpicking the double negative in the title – it’s just one of those folksy things, I guess – and focus instead on how effectively Zach deconstructs this woman’s habit of using a guy for a good time, but never opening up and admitting to any need or vulnerability that would enable them to grow close. She’s always up for a good time, but almost completely devoid of affection, and Zach plays the sad-sack guy hopelessly trying to win her heart incredibly well. This one took a few listens for me to fully get into it, but now it’s one of my favorites.
5. You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional
I’d consider this one an up-tempo tune disguised as a ballad. You could compare to Mumford & Sons if you like, since they do that a lot, but this one doesn’t quite reach the level rowdy, stomping fervor that M&S often do. This one plays on the whole “stoic man, hysterical woman” stereotype, which is a bit silly, but then since Zach swipes the title of another well-known country song when he describes himself as “a man of constant sorrow”, I’m really not sure who actually gets the better deal, because at least sometimes her mood swings are happy ones, I guess. Anyway, he’s determined to win her back by laying his heart bare in a letter, and she’s out living it up with some other guy while the band briefly gets swept up into a lively, bluegrass-y sort of rhythm, but that all falls away in order to let the song end on as sad and stark of a note as it began.
6. You Don’t Love Me Like You Used to
Did you notice that this group has a habit of titling their songs after complete sentences? It kind of gives away the premise of most of them, and it seems a bit clunky when we have three songs in a row all basically called “You Do Something Mean to Me”, but that’s a minor quibble. You can tell from this one why Zach and Brian make a good team – Zach concentrates almost entirely on the slow, heart-on-sleeve stuff while Brian pens more of the group’s energetic material – and there isn’t much of it, but he does it well. This one’s still got a laid-back sort of country shuffle to it, but like “Green Eyes”, it’s got a chorus that leaps out at you immediately, all three voices making sure you get the message. This is one of the few tracks on the album where Kanene’s vocals come to the forefront – she co-wrote the song and it plays out as a sort of bitter duet between – you guessed it, a man and his wife who don’t love each other any more. We’ve hit that theme a bit heavily in the last four tracks, but listening to the two of them spar verbally is a hoot. He chimes in with one of the typical male complaints: “I come home and the table’s set just right/And what you say don’t fill my appetite/I know for sure/Your kitchen’s closing early every night.” Then she rebuts: “One day I wish that you would go away/And find another soul to suffocate/And I love you so/But you should know I can’t go on this way.” Yeah, so somebody could use a little marriage counseling, I guess. Unlike the last few tracks that play it for drama, there’s a bit of a wink and a nudge to the tone of this one, as if they know they’re dealing with a soul-crushing reality for many couples, but they’re still trying to find at least a little humor in it.
7. Fire Red Horse
We break from the usual stories of romance (or the lack of it) for this hushed song to tell a tale about a man and his horse. I don’t fully understand it – there are some stray bits about the horse being past its prime, perhaps even wounded, and the man having seen better days in his youth as well. So it could be about them bonding on one last ride (or walk) before the horse has to be… well, let’s be positive and say put out to pasture. Kanene’s mandolin follows Zach’s vocal melody rather sympathetically here, and there’s an expected vocal climax in the middle as the group members all wish the two a fond farewell: “Go ride through the night/You’re broken inside.” But aside from that, the song hangs together rather loosely and doesn’t stand out to me as one of the better tracks on the album.
8. Bleeding Out
A much-needed break from the slower material comes just in the nick of time, in the form of this surprisingly life-affirming song (given what you might assume to be a depressing title) co-written by Elmquist, which sets its sight on a lively strum in 6/8 time, with the mandolin giving it an almost Celtic flare, and sealing the deal with a crowd-pleasing vocal hook “Ba ba DA, ba ba Da, ba ba Da, ba ba DAAAAA!!!” That would mean nothing if the actual lyrics were fluff, but they’re actually surprisingly encouraging: “Grab the guns and the ammo, let us descend/To the darkest of prisons, and break their defense/We will rattle the cages, rules will be bent/Oh, remind us our days are all numbered, not spent.” It’s a song about wanting to have a purpose, about wanting to live a life that’s worth the oxygen you’re sucking down and the blood rushing through your veins. And I’m willing to bet it’s another crowd pleaser in their concerts. They could use one or two more songs like this, just for balance.
9. Looking For You
Here, the band borrows a ballad from singer/songwriter Matthew Perryman Jones – that’s one of those names that seems to keep popping up, contributing to several folk and acoustic-leaning artists that I listen to, even though I’ve never heard a song sung by the man himself. So I don’t know what Jones’s stylisting leanings are, but The Lone Bellow’s take on this song of his is a stark one, probably the most hushed track on the entire album, even showing great restraint in the emotional, almost spiritual fervor of its chorus: “So I’m falling down/Like it’s holy ground/I’m looking for you again.” There’s a clear sadness to it – you can picture a man sitting alone in the dark, regretting whatever mistakes drove a loved one away. The song isn’t long on details, and musically it isn’t as likely to jump out at you as some of the surrounding tracks, but it’s a sturdy performance that modestly succeeds where “Two Sides of Lonely” didn’t, simply because the song isn’t centered around a contrived metaphor.
10. Teach Me to Know
The even, mid-tempo strum of this one makes it an obvious sing-along anthem – and in that category, it’s every bit as optimistic and affirming as “Bleeding Out” was, though it’s not nearly as exciting to listen to. The band just plays it too straight here, trying to liven the mood with handclaps and that general feeling of everyone sitting around a campfire, banging out a simple but meaningful tune, but ultimately structuring it in such a simplistic fashion that its melody falls flat. Literally, it sounds like they’re just playing one chord over and over at what should be the song’s most climactic, anthemic moment, and it totally kills my interest. All three voices chime in loud and long on the repeated refrain of “Carried away, carried away”, to the point where one would expect “Carried Away” to be the song’s title, with the actual title only coming in rather clumsily during the bridge, which echoes a thought already stated better in “Bleeding Out” as the group sings: “Teach me to know my number of days/Hold out my heart from getting carried away”. Too much repetition and not enough vocal or instrumental pizzazz keep this one firmly in the “average” department.
11. The One You Should’ve Let Go
As I promised earlier, the group finishes strong with another country/rock hybrid, big on the electric guitars and kinda sorta honky-tonk piano, and even a little banjo for good measure. But it’s the vocals that really dominate this one, bounding over the fun, syncopated rhythm as Zach (who finally found it in him to write an up-tempo tune after all!) urges someone who has fallen in love with him that he’s just a distraction at best and that they’re better off as friends. This one’s pretty lively as breakup songs go, and it’s designed to get the crowd hooting and hollering when the group delivers a precision acapella attack as the bridge of the song melts into a melancholy vocal breakdown before the drums kick in again and they trot out the chorus one last time. It’s pretty exciting as “victory lap choruses” go, and definitely the sort of thing you’d expect them to close a show with. Saving it for this late in the album is an odd choice, but they probably just decided to do that after realizing it was a great way to say goodnight to the audience.
This digital-only bonus track throws a gigantic curveball at us – it’s a sultry, jazzy, almost whimsical number driven by horns and woodwinds, a complete out-of-genre experience for the group which reminds of that one time Over the Rhine decided to record a tribute song about Tom Waits. Kanene gets the lead vocal here, and Zach follows up with a verse of his own in sort of a role reversal from “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used to”. The lyrics seem to be taunting a man who is putting on a show to get a woman’s attention – “You’ve got a button that’ll make you cry” is how she puts it, and the whole thing could possibly be seen as a rebuttal to “You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional”, pointing out that men can be emotionally manipulative, too. The wacky, old-timey nature of the music once again makes it clear that they’re not playing this entirely seriously, and for that reason it makes a heck of an odd note to end on. My theory is that this one was so off-kilter that it didn’t fit anywhere into the album proper, but you know, one or two more left-field risks like this wouldn’t be a bad move for the band in the future. If they could figure out how to juxtapose songs like this, which tread paths less traveled, with their more accessible folk and country songs, and if they could trade off the lead vocals more evenly, I think the group could have a formidable follow-up album on their hands.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold $2
Tree to Grow $1.75
Two Sides of Lonely $.25
You Never Need Nobody $1.25
You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional $1
You Don’t Love Me Like You Used to $1
Fire Red Horse $.50
Bleeding Out $1.75
Looking For You $.75
Teach Me to Know $.50
The One You Should’ve Let Go $1.50
TOTAL WITH BONUS TRACK: $13.25
Zach Williams: Lead vocals, guitars
Brian Elmquist: Guitars, backing vocals
Kanene Doheney Pipkin: Mandolin, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.