[11 July 2014]
Black Prairie is a folk-rock collective based in Portland, founded by Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk. Fellow Decemberists Nate Query, John Moen and Jenny Conlee are also involved on bass, drums and accordion, along with Annalissa Tornfelt on fiddle and vocals and Jon Neufeld on guitar. Fortune is their third release, and it’s a good one. It’s not quite a Decemberists album, but then again it’s not supposed to be. It does, however, press some of those same folkie-rock buttons, even as it spirals away into different territory as well.
The album kicks off with the faintly sinister thrum of “The 84”, which sees twangy guitars and throbbing bass underpinning Tornfelt’s sweet vocals. A perfect summertime road-trip song, “The 84” segues nicely into follow-up tune “Kiss of Fate”, a song that falls solidly into the folk side of the folk-rock spectrum – minus the drums, anyway. “Let it Out” follows with an uptempo surge of percussion to get things lively again.
At this point, the band has established its strengths as Tornfelt’s voice and a certain sonic density, the result of accordion, fiddle and guitar licks bumping up against understated bass lines and restless percussion. This general template is used throughout the album, with outliers being the downtempo, almost dirgelike “Let Me Know Your Heart” (perhaps the album’s weakest tune) and the stomping, bluesy title track, which is the record’s strongest.
“Fortune” recalls the more rocking parts of the Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love in both chord progression and overall sonic timbre, and that’s just fine, as those songs represent that band at its pinnacle. Tornfelt’s voice opens up here as well; never a screamer, she nonetheless pushes her range to its limits, with powerful results. When the tune left-turns into something entirely different halfway through, it feels simultaneously unexpected and entirely right. Nice trick.
The bad news is that “Fortune” is such a strong song that the rest of the record can’t live up to it, which means that just five tracks in we’ve heard the best the band has to offer. This isn’t to say that the rest of the album is a waste; there are solid tunes here, namely the traditional-sounding story-ballad “Trask” with its headlong rhythm and scratchy guitar brushings, and “The White Tundra”, which sees the band in full-on let’s-rock-and-the-heck-with-the-folkie-bit mode. It’s a fun rave-up for sure.
Nothing quite matches “Fortune”, though, and there are a few missteps as well. Much of the record’s back half mines a similar kind of midtempo pleasantness without making much impression even after repeated listenings. “If I Knew You Then”, “Songs to Be Sung”, “Cold Day” and “Animals Inside” don’t all sound the same, exactly, but they use similar enough ingredients to elide into each other in the listener’s mind, creating a kind of mushy musical porridge that the band’s better tunes avoid.
Happily, Funk & Co. right themselves before the proceedings conclude, with the aforementioned “The White Tundra” being followed by a pair of more memorable tunes, including the atmospheric closer “Count to Ten”. Overall, then, there’s more here that works than otherwise, and listeners drawn to inventive Americana-cum-rock ‘n’ roll will find much here to enjoy.