There has been a movement over the past few years bringing folk-based, Americana bands to a place of prominence they haven't enjoyed since the '60s, capped by Mumford & Sons winning this year's Album Of The Year Grammy. Other bands in that vein -- Avett Brothers, The Civil Wars -- have enjoyed critical and commercial success that couldn't have been predicted. It's cool again to have an acoustic guitar and harmonies, singing songs about something. No one is more surprised by this than me.
The upside to these fads when the music or style is good, the music machine champions bands that would have otherwise languished and gives them the opportunity to be heard. The downside is the floodgates opening for lesser practitioners, weakening the sound killing the movement.
I said all that to say that was on my mind when friend and BlindedBySound contributor Stephanie, a devoted fan of this style of music before it was "cool," enthusiastically championed The Lone Bellow to me. Are they an imitator in a crowded field, a field I like but don't love, or are they really something special?
Let me go ahead and relieve you of the suspense I've deftly created: The Lone Bellow don't just stand out in this crowded field, they stand in front of it and their self-titled debut will be on my list of the best albums of 2013.
They're special because of their songs and the honesty with which they're written, arranged, and performed. Zach Williams has a direct channel from his soul to his voice, singing each of these songs like it might be the last he'll ever sing and does so with such clarity and passion and without silly affectations or tiresome melisma. Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist are brilliant harmony companions.
The songs; oh my, the songs. They are beautiful, stories that pull you in and hold you close. The record opens with the galloping "Green Eyes And A Heart Of Gold," a simple refrain with a common theme and image but the trio fully invests in the melody and harmony. It's catchy as hell and it took me a few listens before I could allow myself to finish listening to the next 11 tracks. They bookend the record with the swagger of "The One You Should Have Let Go," a romping kissoff chronicling a romantic mismatch with chunky, grinding guitar.
In between, we are treated to fragile tales of love shared and lost, heartache, and memory. "Tree To Grow" sings of a love sacred and ancient, permanent and growing expressed in words like, "A tree I'll grow to let you know my love is older than my soul" and "I'll never leave, I'll always stay, I swear on all that I keep safe." It's an intimate portrait, loudly whispered.
"You Never Need Nobody" is a waltz of humanity and heartache taking us to the playground of love, a grownup version of high school. Our protagonist loves the Homecoming Queen, if you will, a marvel who has never lacked attention of men falling all over themselves to pledge themselves to her. His plight is framed with such poignance; he knows he can offer something to this woman who has never lacked love but can't envision giving his gift. He's blocked by the entourage of suitors and his inability to show her the depth of his love and worthiness to receive hers. He's left to ponder his failings, crashing from the height of a love that should be but never will.
The haunting recriminations in "You Can Be All Kinds Of Emotional" are devastating. The hurt drips from words left unspoken as the music soaks into your soul. It builds slowly, gripping your heart tighter with each note and new layer of sound until it seizes you completely. "Teach Me To Know," "Bleeding Out," and Fire Red Horse" possess much of that same beauty, rounding out a breathless, intimate kiss of a record that lingers on your lips and changes your heart forever.