Mountain Man — seemingly the perfect band to issue a live record. After all, there’s not much to the trio’s music but three high, strong voices and a lot of reverb. The story is almost too precious to bear: three angelically-voiced young women meet at (where else) Bennington College, where they discover their talents and a shared affinity for harmonizing on the ol’ back porch. They decide to sing songs in the sepia-toned style of the early American South. The girls — Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandria Sauser-Monnig, and Amelia Randall Meath — name their group Mountain Man, tour a bit, and receive heaps of acclaim from those liberal media outlets already prone to fetishizing the no-collar music of Appalachia—The New York Times, NPR. When the girls sing “twee twee” here on “How’m I Doin’,” they’re really not kidding.
First things first: from a technical perspective, Mountain Man sound great on Live At the Wiltern. Just in case you thought the ladies were up to some studio trickery on record (one imagines a Pro-Tools kit lovingly set up on a washboard), this live document proves their vocal talents through and through. So, if this is your thing, it will really be your thing. (See also: Garrison Keillor; that O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack you haven’t dusted off since 2002; carpetbagging.)
And if you can take this music for what it is, drop the needle and teach yourself how to play the spoons; good for you. If, however, you’re looking for something either contextually interesting or musically brave, this record will have you coming up short. I don’t know if it’s the reviewer’s job to interrogate the bona fides of an artist (sorry, Master Christgau), but Mountain Man practically begs for it, a veritable singing telegram of a request for rolled eyes or righteous Southern indignation. When one of the women, in a bit of recorded stage banter, tells a story of her childhood that pits North against South, she’s talking about California, for God’s sake, the difference between Sacramento and Oakland. (Stonewall Jackson is plucking his beard from the grave.)
Kidding. In a way, sure, Mountain Man are just tapping into a long, storied rock ’n’ roll tradition of reappropriating the tropes of Southern culture for their own less authentic, more lucrative means — and ultimately, who should care? If Tom Waits wants to wrap himself in New Orleans roots music and make his own brilliant, fucked up landscape, more power to him. If Joanna Newsom (whose beautifully idiosyncratic voice pops up in echoes here on “Dog Song”) finds inspiration in Appalachian harp music and twists the instrument into sounds and songs no one in the Blue Ridge could have imagined 50 years ago, please, give her your money so she can keep going.
But Mountain Man does little, if anything, to make its mark on this music. Without interesting or fresh arrangements, compelling lyrics, or engaging melodies (really, any one of these would do), the listener is left with some pretty voices and an unnerving glimpse of cultural dress-up. Before you start that letter of complaint, let’s clear this up: anyone can — and should — play any type of music they so desire, without holier-than-thou questions of lineage or cultural affiliation coming into the fray. However, if the music itself isn’t interesting or engaging enough to distract from those questions, well, they’re going to sit there, heavy and glaring. It takes more than raw talent and an errant banjo pluck to brush them away.