[15 December 2009]
Are we experiencing another country-rock resurgence? Aren’t we always? Well, let’s see: After the alt-country boom that peaked in the mid-‘90s around the time Uncle Tupelo broke up and their Lennon and McCartney (you can decide which was which) formed new bands, Wilco and Son Volt grew less “country” with each new release. Subsequently, Whiskeytown broke up, as Ryan Adams explored increasingly non-rootsy avenues, as did Old 97’s and frontman Rhett Miller. By the turn of the century, alt-country hadn’t fizzled exactly, but the No Depression craze had lost some momentum.
Roots rock obviously predates and survives any particular spike, but the proliferation of young bands hearkening to pastoral sounds of yesteryear ebbs and flows, and we seem to be in the midst of another rediscovery. However, if the alt-country bands of the ‘90s were influenced by their parents’ Merle Haggard records from the ‘60s, today’s bands are, ten years later, a product of their parents’ Crosby, Stills, & Nash records from the ‘70s. The new result is a decidedly less twangy movement, emphasizing vocal harmonies and warm, melodic folk-rock, led by bands like Fleet Foxes and Midlake.
Put your hands together for Maplewood, whose sophomore release, Yeti Boombox, is the best entry yet into the neo-canyon rock scene. These dudes are Brooklyn indie-rock musicians who formed to see how ‘74 California they could sound. They get it just right on an exquisite set of dreamy, midtempo, sunburned music that embroiders lovely melodies amid gentle acoustic guitars, piano, and close, hazy harmonies. Maplewood should be the soundtrack to one of those pill commercials that depict couples sitting in warm bathtubs out in the woods.
Yeti Boombox quickly establishes its West Coast Americana vibe with “Moonboot Canyon”, one of most blissful rock moments of the year. The song is all floating acoustic guitar and sweetly longing lyrics and steel guitar accents. The second song in, “Easy” is where Maplewood start to more clearly wear their influences on their denim sleeves, with unmistakable CSN-style harmonies. Talk about deja-vu. “Take It Easy” goes the refrain, and this song, like the rest of the album, definitely does although here they flirt with a psychedelic jam at the end. “Embraceable” sounds like something from the Jayhawks’ Tomorrow the Green Grass, replicating the sound of a band that was canyon again before canyon again was cool. Like the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris and Mark Olson, Maplewood’s singers Mark Rozzo and Steve Koester sound terrific together—both have soft, ethereal tones—and share duties evenly throughout the record.
Maplewood don’t boogie, but “North Shore Baby” finds them kind of rollicking, mixing an Eagles-style country-rock groove with Beatlesque vocal reveries. Later, on “Dust”, the band keeps romantic archetypes alive by investing in Western mythology: “Six shots or five, dead or alive, in your cowboy hat and boots”, Rozzo sings atop a twelve-string picking pattern, later adding a nifty trumpet solo in a Pet Sounds moment for maximum California-twilight vibes. “Desert Fathers” is the most far-out throwback here—a Peyote trip of guitar reverb and rattlesnake ambience and lines like “desert fathers turn to dust / Above all passion, above all lust”.
For an album as knockout gorgeous as this one, I’m not sure why Maplewood went with a jokey album title and cover art since nothing on the record sounds like they’re kidding, not with music this lovingly written, arranged, and performed. The cowboy-stoner mojo may be a deliberate journey down a musical past, but that doesn’t make Yeti Boombox unoriginal in its meticulous melodic craft and lyricism. Instead, Maplewood are letting the past remind us of what we are not now and that there’s no need to make it hard.