In a time where much indie folk—from Fleet Foxes to Tallest Man on Earth to even Bon Iver—coats itself in the settled dust and sepia tones of nostalgia, Blind Pilot has a refreshingly clean, modern sound. Following the success of Three Rounds and a Sound, the then-duo of Israel Nebeker and Ryan Dobrowski expanded into a full-fledged band and recorded their follow-up We Are the Tide.
With new players and new elements like vibraphones, dulcimer, keyboards, and trumpets, the Blind Pilot sound has grown unabashedly big. The tones here are still subtle, the layers muted but expansive, but the vocals themselves—delivered with striking depth by Nebeker—are huge and high up in the mix here. All these players add texture, but mostly they serve to strengthen a foundation for Nebeker’s voice to layer and thicken and spread out over.
With this focus on the vocals, and the relatively straightforward approach of the music, Blind Pilot seems to fight to find its footing early on. Opener “Half Moon” is shadowy and tuneful, but as Nebeker’s voice stretches over the spacious keys and distant guitar, things feel a bit forced, even crowded. He claims, “It’s not hard to live like a ghost,” and while it’s a touching, sad statement, the song doesn’t haunt so much as it overpowers. Later on, “The Colored Night” suffers a same fate, with the high-in-the-mix, layered vocals feeling forced, bordering on melodramatic, and tipping the balance on an otherwise subtle tune.
These growing pains rise in part out of the album’s uniformity. We Are the Tide has seven of ten songs that clock in between three and four minutes, and the bulk of the record runs at a mid-tempo chug. This doesn’t end up dooming the album at all, though. A few stumbles aside, the band’s fresh sound comes through nicely, the layers introducing themselves with repeated listens. “We Are the Tide” coasts along on a bright shuffle, and Nebeker cuts his words instead of pulling on them to achieve a new tension, one that builds nicely to the hazy worry of the chorus. “We won’t last long but we’re giving it our best try,” he keens, and you can feel that will to push forward all over the song, as pedal steel warms up the cool backing vocals.
“Get It Out” similarly shows the vital contribution that is Dobrowski’s percussion. The snare rolls here puncture the otherwise dreamy sway of the track. Meanwhile, on the excellently poppy “Get You Right”, Dobrowski’s country shuffle adds propulsion to the jangle of Nebeker’s guitar, meshing it with the quiet banjo lines. In these moments, Blind Pilot feels like the full-on band they’re striving to be, creating layers that are effective without feeling crowded. The second half of the record shows all the textures they can achieve with these new elements and if the songs still feel similar to 3 Rounds and a Sound, that’s because Nebeker and company are capable of the kind of melodies that sound familiar right out of the gate, even if they come around to surprise you later.
As they hone their sound in the later songs on the record, the quiet moments shine. “White Apple”, a dusty ballad, relies on the odd piano fill or a distant horn to create atmosphere behind Nebeker’s emotive singing instead of letting the brittle strum of the guitar carry the day. Closer “New York”, though, shows the band’s true strength. Where other songs build to climaxes, going from humble verses to towering choruses, this buzzing swirl succeeds on restraint. Keys groan for much of the song, but leave space for the rumble of Dobrowski’s tom work and a melancholy bed of violins. The song captures, with its bittersweet fatigue, the double-edge of time. “I’ve got wise and I’ve got old,” admits Nebeker, “not once did I fall.” But it’s the last plea—“so don’t you now”—that sells the song. Maybe he has fallen, but he’s selling hope here to someone who needs it, and the mix of strength and worry coats his voice perfectly.
This precarious spot ends We Are the Tide at just the right moment, where the band has achieved its biggest, best sound by not trying at all to sound so big. The swelling tension of the song never bursts, and you’re left with the sweet ache of the album resonating. It’s an imperfect document, perhaps, but that’s only because it is one that never hides—behind too many layers or too much nostalgia. Blind Pilot lays itself bare on We Are the Tide and if there are a few stumbles early on, they make the successes later in the record all the richer.
// Notes from the Road
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