In Brief: This is a typical sophomore album, in that it finds The Lone Bellow trying a few new things, diversifying the songwriting a bit, and ultimately becoming a better band for it, but the result is a scattershot album where you’re almost better off jumping in anywhere instead of starting from the beginning.
It’s the second time around for Brooklyn-based folk/country/soul trio The Lone Bellow, and I’m realizing that the easiest way to explain how I feel about the group is to list off a bunch of pros and cons. We’ll start with the pros:
- The powerhouse vocals. Obviously this is the group’s big calling card. When all three come to a climax during a heart-rending ballad, the effect can be quite striking.
- The folksy instrumentation. It’s got just the right amount of finger-picking and Southern twang without going overboard. Others are beginning to jump ship now that the whole “folk revival” craze seems to be dying down, so I’ve gotta hand it to them for sticking to their guns.
- The ability to change things up. While the ballads are their bread and butter, they throw in a few more electrified and/or up-tempo tracks just to keep the listener guessing about what type of music they’re making.
- Having three voices in the band allows them to occasionally bring a different singer (and presumably, songwriter) to the forefront. It makes the band feel a little less like a support project for lead singer Zach Williams (which is essentially how it started).
- Everyone in the band also plays at least one instrument. So it’s not just some pretty voices backed by studio players.
- They just seem to be likeable people all around. Even when the lyrics come from a place of great loss or sorrow, you get the feeling they take great joy in their craft, and that joy can be infectious.
Now, the cons:
- They’re a bit repetitive. Listen to most of their songs, and you’ll hear a simple, one or two line chorus hook repeated a few too many times for its own good.
- They milk the whole “slow build up to a climax with everyone singing their freaking lungs out” trick for all it’s worth. After a while, what started off sounding inspired and perhaps even a bit spontaneous can feel formulaic and trite.
- Their slower songs tend to be what I call “up-and-down” songs. meaning that if you’re not wearing headphones, you’re probably going to be turning the volume up and then back down again a lot as you listen to an album of theirs. Some folks call this “dynamic range”. I call it a hassle.
- They have no freaking clue how to sequence the tracks on an album. Their records come across as more of a showcase of talent than a cohesive artistic statement. Listening to one straight through can get a bit dull for that reason. A guy can only take so much gushy humming and oohing and whoa-ing in 6/8 time before he needs a break from it.
It’s that last one that bugs me the most as I listen to The Lone Bellow’s sophomore record, Then Came the Morning. You know how a lot of country acts will shove the big single up to the front of a record (and usually make it the title track by default), regardless of whether it’s a slow, weepy ballad or how jarring the songs immediately following it might seem in comparison? Yep, they did that here. I wouldn’t even say they did it with their strongest song (though the band certainly seemed to think to), but starting the album off with a track that feels both lyrically and musically like it should have followed something else gives it that whole “Here’s our big single… and a bunch of other random songs” feel, which really doesn’t do the most excellent tracks on this thing any justice. Perhaps it’s unfair to criticize a record that simply documents whatever was on an artist’s mind during a year or two out of their lives, as if it should have some huge overarching concept to it or something. But I can’t help it. The records that pull that off well, or failing that, at least have a strong sense of musical cohesion to keep an album flowing nicely from one track to the next, tend to be the ones that score highest with me and get the most repeat plays. The rest, I mostly forget about after I’ve sorted the standout songs into various personal playlists.
What The Lone Bellow ultimately has here has is a slightly above average record that shows talent and some respectable amount of stylistic diversity. It expands their sound at least a teeny bit beyond their self-titled debut, with a few of the most pleasant surprises coming at the opposite extremes of its “loud-to-quiet” spectrum. It’s more or less as solid overall as their first disc; it just feels even less logically arranged than the already less-than-ideal track order found on that record. I could put it on shuffle and probably get a more satisfying track listing, which I know seems like a stupid thing to criticize when most of the individual songs are pretty good. So many of them are just too close for comfort to similar songs that mostly use the same tricks, while the more unique ones seem to come totally out of left field. I’m normally a huge fan of killer vocal harmonies, so it’s clearly a bad sign when they’re coming up on the end of the record and I’m thinking, “Massive three-part chorus AGAIN? Come on guys, change it up a little.” Despite my fatigue, there’s enough here that I’d wholeheartedly recommend to make it worth a listen.
1. Then Came the Morning
Even though the title track is what I’d consider a “slower song”, it has that feeling of having joined something already in progress. The piano, drums and vocals all come rolling in pretty much at once, like they had just smoothly segued out of another song. And the first words we hear are the song’s chorus: “Then came the morning/It was bright like a light that you kept from your smile.” It sets an encouraging tone, to be sure, but it’s the musical equivalent of beginning the first sentence of a novel with the word “And”. It’s probably unfair to judge a song by the nothing that comes before it, because I can tell this one carries a lot of emotional weight for Zach Williams. The band started as an emotional outlet for him when his wife became paralyzed after a horse riding accident, and this song is essentially the end of that chapter, the light at the end of the tunnel that affirms “Joy comes in the morning” after a long, dark, night of total despair. I love that concept, and I think the group’s patented triple vocal attack is totally on point here, even if it takes a while for the song to congeal from Zach’s loose, sort of rambling lead vocal into something more anthemic. I just keep getting hung up on how powerful of an ending this could have been for the record, or even how if it went somewhere in the middle, that would make a little more sense. It doesn’t even work as a coda to their first album, musically speaking, since that one ended rather inexplicably with the upbeat “The One You Should’ve Let Go” (which I loved, but which was more of a “concert finale” than an “album finale”). It just seems out of place no matter how much I try to rationalize it.
2. Fake Roses
Track two is, unsurprisingly, the second single. Having a mid-tempo song about a love gone wrong here makes a little more sense than it did on their first record to put “Tree to Grow”, a gorgeous but slow-building song, right after the massive kick-off of “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold”. Still, this one’s in the unfair position of sounding like it wants to be this album’s “Tree to Grow” due to its positioning, and the muted electric guitar chords and lonely lap steel at the beginning of it don’t quite give it the same resonance. (I’m also not sure why there are electronic keyboards cropping up here and there. They’re not overbearing, but they’re still not a good fit.) Bless Zach for putting do much detail into his story, though. The song paints a pretty clear picture of a house filled with relics of days gone by, symbols like fake roses and Elvis postcards to communicate “welcome to our happy house” to any visitors, but there’s no real home there, because the husband is a deadbeat and he’s hardly ever there, while the wife is left to pick up the slack, all by her lonesome. The group does a bang-up job of really feeling her heartbreak here. Predictable as it may be, the song’s got one of those huge bridges that gets those tiny hairs on the back of my neck all tingly. I want to root for this one, but I think they’ve hit a triple where they could have had a home run.
I keep wanting to call this song “I Let You in Again”. After all, they sing that line about a kabillion times. There seems to be a story here about a man trying to communicate with a woman who lost him a long time ago – maybe he’s the deadbeat husband from the previous song, or maybe he’s some sort of a ghost. Now she sleeps with the lights on, which is never a good sign. I’m not terribly inclined to dig deeper into it even though I’m sure it must be a tragic story, because for the first half of the song I’m just sort of lulled into submission by the repetition, and by the time it reaches its boiling point, there’s this insanely LOUD and overbearing bridge melody that loops around and around and seems like it’s never going to end. Overcompensating, much?
4. Take My Love
This song goes careening straight into pop/rock territory for no reason whatsoever – not that I mind; it just illustrates how out of place everything is when the loud, rumbling drums come careening in after the previous song has finally settled down. This one’s not quite the runaway train that “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold” was, but it seems to be going for that same niche – namely, folks like me who prefer a little more action from our folk/pop/country hybrid bands. It’s a good trick to pull off, being electric and contemporary and yet rootsy at the same time, and I think they’ve managed to walk that fine line here, with the guitars big and textured, and the melodies warm and inviting. Zach sings with almost religious fervor about a woman whose spirit is like a wildfire – she can’t be captured and she’d dangerous to even touch, but there’s something he admires about her. To love her means to respect her freedom and her wildness, not to try to possess her or to hem her into a conventional, committed relationship, so he simply proclaims, “I know I might not be the one you take… Take my love.” The song itself seems to catch fire early on, and it’s all the better for it, really standing out from the rest of the record due to its bold kinetic energy.
5. Call to War
Zach backs away from the mic and lets his bandmates take the lead for the next two songs. Why these two songs are together, I can’t really say, but I’m glad to hear Kanene Donehey Pipkin get a lead vocal again, especially since the only song she headed up on their last album was an oddball bonus track that most folks probably didn’t get to hear. the subdued electric guitars and the simple rise and fall of the melody suggest a modern take on an old spiritual, and despite my usual distate for songs that conflate war and religion, there’s something genuinely compelling about her looking forward to that day when “Love will see the armies fall”. Maybe I like it because it doesn’t fall into the “Us vs. Them” trap that similar songs might – she’s longing for peace at the end of a war fought against the very concept of war itself, if that makes any sense. The two men in the group bolster her rising melodies quite nicely, and of course this leads to a powerful climax, but it seems to progress to that point naturally, so it doesn’t seem as obligatory as it can in a few of the group’s songs. Good job here, and I’d really like to hear this group pass the mic around more often.
6. Watch Over Us
Now it’s Brian Elmquist‘s turn. I don’t recall him getting any lead vocals on the group’s debut, but his voice isn’t so radically different from Zach’s, so I could be wrong about that. I had to listen to this one carefully to realize a different person was singing here, because rhythmically and tonally it’s quite similar to “Marietta”, to the point where when I was trying to recall how that one went earlier, I kept humming the subdued melody that opens this track instead. This is one of the “up-and-down” songs, though at least this this song owns its sparseness all the way through, allowing the group vocals to shine with only an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. This sounds like a spiritual song because it seems like a prayer for God to watch over a man and his family, but a quick look at the three brief stanzas of this song reveals that he’s actually speaking to his mother and father (and apparently regretting some of the traits he’s inherited from the father’s side), invoking memories of them as he looks for guidance concerning his own wife and child. There really could stand to be more to this – it’s intriguing, but it feels like a fragment, and musically it needs to do more to make it stand out from the material that surrounds it.
Zach starts this one off even more abruptly than the title track, and I suppose I can see how it might be appropriate for a song about guy breaking into diners after dark to just start off with that admission immediately – no musical intro required, just bust on in. Even though this one’s structured like a traditional country ballad (which means nothing much is happening rhythm or melody-wise to distinguish it from the three other songs in this vein we’ve already heard by this point), the story’s a bit of an unusual one, since the buglar isn’t actually there to burgle anything – he just gets the jukebox going and sings along to his old favorite tunes with no one around to hear. The chorus laments for a lost love – I can only assume she was a waitress due to his obsession. I’m not really sure what the point of the story is. The chorus hints at some sort of a meaningful analogy as he laments “The rules that I break, break, break into dollars and cents”, but this is one case where I don’t think all the passionate wailing has really been earned. I just get a weird, stalker-y vibe from a song that musically, doesn’t seem like it wants to be all that dangerous. On the upside, the guitar solo in the middle eight isn’t too shabby.
8. Heaven Don’t Call Me Home
Now this might just be the most unabashedly Southern thing that the band has ever record. It’s also the loudest, hands down, even beating out “Green Eyes” with its raucous combination of rockabilly guitar riffs and old-school Gospel fervor. I’m gonna guess this isn’t actually an old Gospel song that they’ve unearthed and decided to cover, considering the song’s refrain: “When I’m dead and gone, heaven call me home, damn sure Georgia will!” There’s something about the whole hillbilly-goofing-up-religion thing that’s actually kind of charming here, because the guy’s just that convinced the Southern roads he’s been traveling will lead to Heaven itself. It feels like the sort of thing the group might have unearthed from some old, bootlegged compilation of songs considered too racy for the Bible Belt way back when, and now they’ve given it a modern overhaul and yet it’s quaint and charming despite all the hyped-up noise. I’m sure this won’t be everyone’s favorite, but it puts a huge smile on my face, and it’s bound to be a huge audience participation moment during their live shows.
9. If You Don’t Love Me
What’s this – two actual up-tempo songs in a row? I’m half tempted to warn them to space this stuff out a little better, but then that would lead right back to my earlier complaints about pacing, so I suppose I’m just never satisfied. At first it sort of falls into the space where it’s neither a big rocker nor a ballad – the electric guitars are just sort of clunking along to a mid-tempo beat, and the whole thing honestly sounds rather constipated, but they open it up a bit later and really give the guitars and drums a chance to match the volume of the vocals, if I like. Lyrically, they’re retreading old ground here. A million songwriters have tackled the whole “If you don’t love me, let me go” topic, and these guys have already done it better with “The One You Should Have Let Go”. So I’m not inclined to pay close attention to the lyrics. I get swept up in the driving rhythm of it once they really start wailing on the bridge, but it’s the tried-and-true performance trope I’m enjoying here, not so much the rest of the song.
The first time I heard this song, I felt the need to apologize on the band’s behalf to the good people of Telluride, Colorado. The song – slow and sparse and dramatic as it may be – essentially reduces the town’s name to the lame pun “To hell you ride”. Apparently that wasn’t The Lone Bellow’s idea – there are several anecdotes about the town’s name supposedly being a contraction of that saying, because pretty much every mining town that cropped up in the Old West days had some sort of a colorful story like that. Finding out about that dubious piece of history and turning it into a song isn’t a terrible idea, but the song lingers on the notion of a fated trip from “Hickory to Telluride” for far too long without really giving it much background (and I honestly don’t even know where “Hickory” is – plenty of states have such a town, but Colorado isn’t one of ’em). Zach gives us the overall sense that a man is trying to hide from his inner demons as he makes the perilous journey. Again, it’s one of those songs that ranges from a whisper to a roar, so they’re not giving me much incentive to really dig into the story. I admire some of what they’re doing in terms of atmosphere here, using the violin as an eerie mood-setter and only having it play a vague reflection of the melody, while a fingerpicked acoustic guitar is the main fragile backbone of the song. The piano is what kills it for me – it seems to hit the same solitary note throughout the song, and by verse two I’m downright sick of it. I do give this song credit for expanding the group’s sound into something atmospheric, but once again there’s that problem of a big vocal climax that wants to be dramatic, but that hasn’t really been earned.
11. To the Woods
We’re still in bare-bones acoustic mode here, but the tone is a little brighter, and in a nice change of pace, this is the one song on the record that’s content to be small and not need to go for a big finish. Zach sings all by himself throughout – not that it’s a terribly long song, just two minutes and change. The violin meekly, but sort of playfully, echoes the guitar melody between verses, and it gives the feeling of a peaceful morning stroll through the forest, dew still on all the logs and ferns. The lyrics lean toward the poetic, not directly telling a story, but sketching an image of someone who is beautiful and also fragile, making the quiet ending all the more tragic when the song ends prematurely on the line “You were golden, filled with power, walking toward your final hour.” I wish there was a little more to this one, but it’s probably appropriate that it remains just a sketch, lest it become overwrought.
12. Cold As It Is
Happy as I am to get one last rhythm-oriented tune before the album winds down, the strong, syncopated drum beat that immediately kicks this one off feels really inappropriate, both musically and thematically, after the ending of the previous song. This one feels like a refugee – it should have shown up earlier in the album, but everything’s so scattered that it wound up buried near the end for some strange reason. I will say that compositionally, it isn’t as strong as some of the other upbeat tracks I’ve enjoyed so much. I like its semi-bluesy, electric groove, even though it does very little to deviate from a single chord throughout its verse and chorus. Thankfully this group does bridges really well, because bridges are where you have to change things up and then you can coast nicely back into your final chorus, and this song is no exception. But if you’re the type to gripe about repetitive lyrics, you’ll notice right away that this song starts and ends with its chorus, which is already rather redundant (“Cold as it is, I wouldn’t leave my baby doll/I wouldn’t leave my baby doll/I wouldn’t leave”), so you end up hearing those same lines way too frequently over the course of a three-minute song. The abrupt ending and beginning make me feel like it could have worked as the album’s penultimate track if the title track was at the end. That would actually be a pretty smooth segue, and since the song’s about not leaving someone behind when your life together is at its bleakest, it would be a good thematic fit as well.
13. I Let You Go
Contributing to the “odds and ends” feel of the back half of this record is the final track, which feels more like a demo that can’t quite make up its mind whether it’s a solo singer-songwriter piece or a full-band affair. When Zach’s all by himself with just a guitar, the song feels loose and personal, but then when the drums kick in and the rhythm is more well-defined, it feels more polished and ready for a spot on a studio album. it meanders back and forth between those two settings, which means the overall pace of it isn’t even terribly consistent, so just when I’m getting the hang of its slow, sad rhythm, it falls away again. As you might gather from the title, it’s yet another song about letting go of someone you love (and, as the old adage goes, hoping they’ll come back). Which is pretty much a slap in the face when it immediately follows a song about not letting someone go. I’m sure that these songs might be about two completely different situations. But again, it points to a lack of attention given to the overall narrative of the record. Stuff’s just been tossed on to this record with total disregard for the confusion all the generic “you”s will cause an audience who is probably struggling to still pay attention at this point anyway. Cut this track and maybe one or two of the other mediocre songs, rearrange the remaining ten tracks to flow a little better, and you might just have a consistently listenable record that doesn’t sabotage itself every eight minutes or so.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Then Came the Morning $1
Fake Roses $1.25
Take My Love $1.75
Call to War $1.75
Watch Over Us $.75
Heaven Don’t Call Me Home $2
If You Don’t Love Me $.75
To the Woods $1.25
Cold As It Is $1
I Let You Go $0
Zach Williams: Vocals, guitars
Kanene Donehey Pipkin: Mandolin, bass, vocals
Brian Elmquist: Guitars, vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: