It was a Rolling Stone feature about "30 Great Country Albums of 2015 You Probably Didn't Hear" that made me buy, on a whim, "Such Jubilee" by Mandolin Orange and I found it to be engrossing.
With follow-up Blindfaller, the sublime playing and intimate harmonies continue but in a slightly, fuller form as the North Carolina duo, Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin, now have a band in tow, which seems to be in vogue - I'm thinking of The Stray Birds' enlarged line-up on their latest release, Magic Fire, here.
Frantz and Marlin were out to create different vibes this time round and they have succeeded without compromising on charm, warmth, sensuality, care or spirit. They have an endearing musical and creative bond that marks them out as worthy of exaltation.
Opening track, Hey Stranger is superb: banjo atop loosely-rewarding guitar and Emily's confident yet tender vocals stamp out their intent while second song in, Wildfire, is one of my favourite tracks of the year. Stunningly engaging, an absolutely wonderful country lament, it is served up drenched with tenderness and irresistible harmonies as comforting as a cat snuggling on your lap for a cuddle.
When Picking Up Pieces kicks in and Willie Nelson pops into your head, rest assured this is a Mandolin Orange composition that sounds, I agree, as if it could have been penned decades ago and survived lots of replays. Cold Lover's Waltz is assured, mellow and suffused with melancholy, aided and abetted by a simple verse structure with an inventive intrusion from fiddles, initially, then steel guitar.
The genteel delights of Lonesome Whistle showcase a band - Clint Mullican (bass); Kyle Keegan (drums); Allyn Love (pedal steel) and Josh Oliver (guitar, keys, vocals) - playing as one: hushed drums, spectral banjo and joyous fiddle work. In contrast, My Blinded Heart is unashamedly, old-time country, twanging with gentle twists, yielding to a blissful mandolin break and Hard Travellin' sees the band kick up the porch dust to let fly eagerly with carefree, country honk stonk that would knock over tables in a crowded bar.
On the sombre, Take This Heart Of Gold, the vocals are enhanced by tingling, spare guitar. Marlin, in the pre-release literature, readily confesses that the opening line - "Take this heart of gold and melt it down" - is a misheard Tom Waits' lyric. Such honesty, but not surprising given Mandolin Orange's determination to be authentic and dogged to come up, once more, with an unfailingly elegant album, recorded in a week-long tour break.
They know what they are doing when they hit the studio, clearly. Here's hoping this devotion to their work means this collection makes it on to a different Rolling Stone list this year: a "best of" would be well merited.
|Mark Harrison: Turpentine||Leslie West: Mountain|
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