[5 March 2014]
Harpeth Rising play a type of modern acoustic Americana that relies on traditional instruments – guitars and banjos and fiddles, along with a cello for the bottom end – and song structures that often sound as if they’ve been channeled from a bygone era. The Nashville-based quartet have released four albums since their self-titled 2010 debut, and latest offering Tales From Jackson Bridge serves up an interesting mishmash ranging from foot-stomping country-ish rave-ups to dexterous instrumental workouts to tracks that wouldn’t sound out of place on an indie rock album (whatever that means). With all four musicians contributing vocals, including three women, the songs have a warm, lush feel to them. Not every track is a standout of course, but overall this is a solid offering of modern-but-traditional fare.
Album opener “Wheelhouse” gets things off to a rollicking start, courtesy of squalling fiddle, a jaunty rhythm and expressive vocals. The album notes fail to specify who sings what, which is a shame, because the vocals are a strength here. The interplay between fiddle an banjo is another highlight, and one that elevates the tune from merely aping the traditions of old-timey music into something unique and individual.
Such uniqueness crops up throughout the record, leavened with other, less memorable moments. “Day After Day” is a considerably weaker tune, with a forgettable melody and a trotting rhythm that doesn’t offer the listener much to hang onto. The harmonies are pretty on the chorus, but that’s not enough. Things get considerably more interesting in the spooky, bouncy “Burn Away Your Troubles”, which is propelled by slinky plucked cello lines (how often do you hear that?) and some nifty banjo licks. At their best, Harpeth Rising excel at this sort of thing, utilizing traditional sounds to create something far more interesting than the mere sum of its parts. Instrumental “Eris” does this as well.
Other times, the band falls into the worthy-folk-music trap, and things get less interesting. “The Sparrow” is low-key, downtempo and dull, while “You Won’t Hear It From Me” is peppy, uptempo and dull. Overall, the middle of the record sags a bit.
Happily, the band pull it all together for the final three tracks. First comes an instrumental version of “House of the Rising Sun”, a classic tune that here is stretched out and reworked in its slow opening section, before kicking into a more familiar middle gear for the final two minutes. Vocals would have been welcome, but their absence renders this most familiar song more alien, in a good way. This is followed by “Goin’ My Way”, a tune that frankly rocks in the context of the record, and maybe most other contexts as well; with its scratchy beat, hooks aplenty and snappy vocals, this is one of the best alt-rock songs you’re likely to hear this year, even if it’s not quite a rock band playing it. Finally, the record closes out with the somber but moving “Ghost Factory”, a tune that aims for the heartfelt, and succeeds.
It’s tough to know who will respond to this record – fans of pop and rock might find it too folkie, folkies might find it too weird or even raucous at moments, trad purists will turn up their noses. This is too bad, because there plenty of good moments here. Harpeth Rising makes the kind of music that people make when they don’t give a damn about trends or expectations or focus groups. We need more of that around.