Here’s a great way to get away from all the Halloween tourists from out ot state descending like a swarm of poisonous roaches on this city this weekend: go see popular North Carolina newgrass/Americana road warriors Mandolin Orange at Bowery Ballroom tonight at 9. Cover is $20.
Their new album Blindfaller is streaming at Spotify. While it draws on the same purist Appalachian sounds as their previous releases, it’s also more fleshed out, a full-band production. The band’s lyrics look back to an oldtime vernacular without being cheesy or cliched. And as with the best folk music, there’s a lot of subtext and symbolism here, a welcome, politically relevant, populist sensibility.
Fiddler/frontwoman Emily Frantz’s strong, crystalline vocals soar over a spiky backdrop of acoustic guitar and the band’s signature mando sound on the pensive, midtempo opening track, Hey Stranger, a cautionary tale. That’s co-leader Andrew Marlin on the four strings and Josh Oliver on the six. Marlin’s reflective vocals channel the slowly swaying, moody post Reconstruction-era ambience ofWildfire: it wouldn’t be out of place on a Richard Buckner album from twenty years ago. Likewise, pedal steel player Allyn Love teams with Frantz for a lustrous veneer for the sad honkytonk waltz Picking Up Pieces.
Building a scenario where there’s “a redbird in the corn, a blackbird at the door,” Lonesome Whistle is a gorgeously bittersweet Nashville gothic lament, with purposeful, biting solos from both fiddle and mando while bassist Clint Mullican pushes things along. “I saw it in a dream, monuments of trees, as the air we breathe turned our lungs to dust,” Marlin intones on the even more ominous, apocalyptic Echo, which maybe ironically is the album’s most retro number.
Kyle Keegan’s drums build to a quick peak as Cold Lover’s Waltz gets underway: it’s a more acoustic, Laura Cantrell-ish take on plaintive early 60s countrypolitan and arguably the album’s strongest, most anthemic cut. Oliver plugs in and plays with a raw electric tone on the steady, bittersweet, distantly Hank Williams-tinged My Blinded Heart, which is just as tuneful.
Ther album’s loudest track is Hard Travelin’, a straight-up hard honkytonk shuffle. The band follows that with the low-key, front-porch folk-flavored Gospel Shoes. a witheringly cynical, vividly aphoristic antiwar anthem. The album winds up with the spare, restless nocturne Take This Heart of Gold.
One particularly refreshing thing about this collection is what’s NOT on it. No simpering phony Beach Boys indie pop disguised as bluegrass, no autotune (even some of the Nashville crew are using it now), no product placements. Just an organic sound that’s just as new as it is old-fashioned.