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The Lower 48

Where All Maps End

(self-released; US: 1 Nov 2011; UK: Import)

Breathy folk-rock outfit the Lower 48 specialize in the kind of hushed, uber-sincere acoustic music that could only be described as “rock” in the most general of terms. Sarah Parson and Ben Braden share vocal duties, both together and singly. The dominant instrumental sounds are acoustic guitars and keyboards, with a smattering of other sounds—percussion, banjo, harmonica—lending a bit of variety along with a faint whiff of Americana.


Opening track “The End” sets the tone, both musically and lyrically, with a warm bed of strummed acoustic guitar underlying the vocalists’ twinned harmonies, while a tone of loss permeates the song’s story of withered friendship. There is little rancor here, just a kind of weary wistfulness (wistful weariness?) that turns out to be the prevailing tone for the record as a whole.


“Into the Woods” trades the harmony vocals for Parson alone, while “Traveling Tune” brings Braden back into the mix. Through it all, the prevailing mood is downtempo and faintly sorrowful, with lyrics delivered in breathy cadences rife with references to “cheap red wine” and “the things that scratch and ruin a friendship.” “Interlude I” limits its lyrics to a single line: “There’s no love like this anymore.”


If all this sounds a bit dire, well—yes. But the musicianship here is capable, provided you’re not hungering for a shredding guitar solo or anything, and the tunes have that earwormy quality of sounding simultaneously familiar yet surprising. This is no easy trick.


That said, there is a certain sameness to the album. By the time the listener gets to later tracks like “Golden Shore” (in which the narrator plans to “Sing the kids a lullaby / One more time before I die”), a sense of déjà vu is setting in. Occasional flashes of cello or brass aren’t enough to liven up the sonic template enough, and even a guy like Neil Young knows that dour lyrics sung to pretty melodies aren’t enough to keep people engaged the whole way through. You get the feeling that these guys have listened to plenty of After the Gold Rush-era Neil Young in their lives.


“I’m On My Way” is a rare (relatively) uptempo number, and it benefits from contrast with the surrounding tunes, not least because of the sinister, reverb-heavy undertones of guitar distortion cropping up in the chorus. A bit more of this throughout the record would have been welcome. Less welcome is the instrumental rendition of “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye” that crops up halfway through. Album closer “Smoke Will Rise” ends on a high note too—90 seconds of pulsing verve—and one wonders why these moments of excitement were left for the tail end of the record.


Where All Maps End has plenty of good things going for it, not least of which is a set of pleasantly written and performed songs, but “pleasant” isn’t the same as “riveting.” To bring listeners back for round two, the band will need to add more tricks to its repertoire. It’s far from being a poor record, but as yet the band doesn’t do enough to stand out from its indie-folk brethren.

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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