All signs indicate the nouveau folk renaissance isn’t losing steam anytime soon, with new bands joining in the fray at an exponential level. Of course, the inherent challenge of any upcoming group is to assert their individuality and present what it is about them that warrants more attention than is received by the rest, and this is especially true in a lucrative and popular genre. The Phoenix sextet Jared & The Mill manages to be one of those outfits to stamp their distinctiveness, employing and expanding upon previously understated textures in Americana folk.
Now, on first listen of the group’s debut LP, Western Expansion, the comparisons to trendsetters Mumford & Sons is almost a requisite — the abundance of the banjo, the earnest vocals, the rollicking melodies and jaunty rhythms. But, unlike them, Jared & The Mill’s songs sound distinct from one another, using similar instrumentation and techniques without relying on them for uniformity. Furthermore, as the album’s name implies, there is a sense of wanderlust pervading the piece and uniting each cut, giving it an overarching thematic concept. The album is akin to a travelogue, depicting an autumnal road trip from a dreary and rustic eastern locale, through the Midwest, across the flyover states, into the desert sands of the Southwest and winding up in the sun of the West Coast.
The adventure begins with “Breathe Me In”, itself starting with a cold open, Jared Kolesar singing in near a capella, supported only by harmony vocals and sparse minor piano notes. He is soon joined by banjo plucking, aggressive guitar strumming and galloping drums as if bursting from a crumbling barn. As the record’s lead single, it is a wise choice as an opener, expressing the restless energy that carries things forward from here on out. It also sets the motifs of being wounded but defiant, Kolesar’s lyrics rife with self-deprecation tempered with an underlying resilience.
A stylistic shift occurs with subsequent track “Returning Half”, wherein a western guitar arises in a dirty, electric sweep. Later in the track, foot-stomping and hand-clapping worthy of a tent-show revival take over, making it one of the album’s most raucous entries. “In Our Youth” zooms in for the first stop on the trek, the travelers letting loose their youthful abandon in a campfire drinkalong. “We’ll measure our success / By the bottles we go through”, encapsulates the celebratory mood that comes with the camaraderie of friends. By contrast, there is “Love to be Found”, steeped in motel room loneliness, a more hushed affair wherein the narrator seems to question if being around people is the same as being with them while trying to reassure himself that simply breathing the same air as his mate links him to her. The mood rebounds with “What Would You Do”, which builds to Pogues-style devilry after a sensitive and staid intro, and “Talewind”. The latter is the album’s centerpiece, world-weary in cinematic fashion in its movements and percussion, featuring a mournful slide guitar and swaying accordion.
But, as with all road trips, there comes a point late in the game where the sights passing by outside your car window become less and less compelling. The second half of the album suffers from this, the songs at times running together and at others being overwrought, such as in the overly romanticized “Just For Now”, cloying in lyrics like “I’m a monster of affection / You’re my beautiful addiction”. Fortunately, the momentum returns in the penultimate “Wrecking Ball”, one of the album’s catchiest numbers. The album then reaches its destination in the title track, defined by a sense of resolution and the dual feelings of excitement and melancholy that come with arrival. Thus, as a debut album in a genre boiling over with groups hoping to make it big playing ersatz folk, Western Expansion is a document that seems completely genuine, Jared & The Mill offering something new in a musical terrain increasing peopled by those who favor playing it safe instead of taking risks.
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// Sound Affects
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