Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Lone Bellow - Then Came the Morning

The Lone Bellow's self-titled debut record was one of the biggest surprises of 2013 for me. An Americana trio hailing from Brooklyn, New York, the band took the poppier aspects of the first Civil Wars record and parlayed them into one of the most effortlessly melodic folk-rock albums in recent memory. It didn't hurt that frontman Zach Williams had an incredible voice—similar in timbre, range, and emotional color to Glen Hansard or John Paul White. It also didn't hurt that Charlie Peacock, the guy who produced both of those Civil Wars records, agreed to sit behind the boards. With Peacock's sure hand guiding them, The Lone Bellow were able to create songs that would be palpable in the a post-Mumford world, but that also wouldn't sacrifice the dusty traditionalism of Americana music.

On Then Came the Morning, the Lone Bellow's sophomore release, Peacock's production is replaced by the work of The National's Aaron Dessner. Unsurprisingly, Dessner takes the band's sound down darker, ghostlier roads than the ones they tread last time. As a result, this record isn't as instantly accessible as the first one, but there's also depth to these songs that we didn't see last time around. The Lone Bellow lived and died largely on the towering vocal performances of Williams, but the songs themselves would undoubtedly have lost most of their power in lesser hands. There wasn't a lot of lyrical depth, and the melodies were fairly predictable, but Williams imbued songs like "Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold" and "Tree to Grow" with such visceral emotion that it didn't matter.

Then Came the Morning showcases a lot of growth for the band, and the result is a deeper and more layered musical experience. In other words, the album doesn't depend entirely on Zach Williams this time—though he still sounds as great as ever. At one point, on the stunning "Call to War," Williams even hands over lead vocal duties to mandolinist Kanene Donehey Pipkin. Pipkin's angelic soprano glides through the low-key arrangement effortlessly, giving a showcase of her talents that we haven't yet heard. While Pipkin does more than adequate work as a backup singer to Williams on most tracks, "Call to War" proves that she might be a bit underused. Perhaps The Lone Bellow could learn something from The Civil Wars and split vocal duties a bit more evenly next time around.

"Call to War" is a good microcosm of what makes Then Came the Morning so good. Everything about the track feels timeless, from the delicate, lilting melody to Pipkin's restrained, unhurried vocal delivery. The structure is like that of a classic, traditional folk song, alternating between short four-line verses and a brief repeated chorus refrain. Even the lyrics, lines like "When called to war from trumpets tall/Love will see the army's fall," feel like they could have been around 100 years ago.

That timeless feel pervades throughout this record. From the snapshot vignettes of "Fake Roses," to the Waylon Jennings and George Jones songs playing on the jukebox in "Diners," Then Came the Morning plays like an album from a different time. The title track is straight southern gospel; "To the Woods" is a two-minute folk ditty that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Bob Dylan's early acoustic records; and "If You Don't Love Me" sounds more like an outtake from The Basement Tapes—or at least from The New Basement Tapes. Even the rockers—admittedly slight blues-driven tunes like "Heaven Don't Call Me Home" and "Cold As It Is"—draw extensively from old influences like Elvis and B.B. King. On their first record, The Lone Bellow were broke in New York City and taking the F train home. On Then Came the Morning, they've traded New York for the Great American South, and swapped the subway for classic cars and dirt roads. The band may hail from Brooklyn, but the new setting meshes better with their sound.

A few of the weaknesses from the first record still linger here. Like its predecessor, Then Came the Morning loses steam as it goes—a shame, considering the near-perfection of side one. The lyrics, despite some lovely imagery scattered throughout, could also use some work. Sometimes, it feels like there's a bit of a disconnect between the verses and the choruses. The verses can be quite lyrical and flowing, but the choruses sometimes seem very simplified—almost to the point of being dumbed down—for pop radio. It's not tough to see why that might be: The Lone Bellow are trying to tap into the same market that ate up Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers a few years ago, and hit songs like "I Will Wait" and "Ho Hey" have some of the simplest, most straightforward chorus hooks ever. Sure, the big refrain sections on "Fake Roses" or "Diners" or "Take My Love" are nice, but they always pale in comparison to the deeper, more nuanced verses.

Ultimately, though, Then Came the Morning is still a solid next step for a promising young band. The songs are catchy and memorable, the musicianship is impeccable, and the production…well, suffice to say that Aaron Dessner should soon find himself an in-demand producer in the folk/Americana world. I have no qualms with saying that The Lone Bellow's best work is still ahead of them—probably a few years and records down the road, when they stop worrying so much about mainstream crossover potential—but Then Came the Morning will justifiably earn a lot of play in the interim.

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