With The Pines, the sun never shines, and you shiver when the cold wind blows. Or so it feels when listening this alt-folk duo’s remarkable new album, Tremolo. The group, led by singers-guitarists David Huckfelt and Benson Ramsey, captures a spectral single effect throughout, evoking an otherworldly landscape of fallen moons and dead valleys, campfires and ghost towns, meadows of dawn and broken dreams. These Minneapolis-via-Iowa boys pick delicate, spare acoustic guitars wrapped in glass-slide reverberations and gentle, haunting organ embellishments on these ten scorched-earth songs.
Tremolo, produced by Ramsey’s father and Greg Brown sideman, Bo Ramsey, borrows Daniel Lanois’ Time Out of Mind treatment, lacing everything with a gleaming echo. Both singers whisper their vocals for the most part, and they’re hard to tell apart. Ramsey is the most effective singer, probably because he sounds like he’s barely trying, while Huckfelt has a distracting, rapid quiver in his voice that doesn’t serve his songs particularly well. But both play and sing with singular uniformity, providing an elegant cohesive structure to this seductive record.
While the album works in musical miniature—just a slight organ run here, a little electric guitar embroidery there—the lyrics spread much further. It’s mostly dreary stuff about foreboding signs and characters who have plenty to cry about. But as 19th-century as The Pines are, with their gutbucket instrumentation and O Brother, Where Art Thou? clothing, the songs apply easily to the here and now, taking on the spiritual crisis of hard times in arresting metaphorical verse: “Who hung the moon so low in the sky?/It taps its feet ’round my bedside and/It breaks the locks on all my dreams”. And on “Meadows of Dawn” they hit harder, ruminating on the toll of recent years: “The counter-intelligence was wrong tonight/More has been lost here than songs tonight/Oh the heart is a cage in this perilous age/And I’m quite sure the lanterns will dim tonight”.
The controlling motif on Tremolo is the moon, fitting for this album’s midnight meditations. It’s as if they dared each other to work a reference to the moon into every song on the album, which they did but for the sole cover, a reworking of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver Blues”. The moon serves as an apocalyptic harbinger in these songs, which evoke either the scrabble of the past or barren lands of a wasted future. “The night owls howl and feed until dawn,” Huckfelt sings on “Shine on Moon”, “I turn my collar from the right to the wrong”. It’s a song of hopeless alienation and latent violence, set when late night becomes indistinguishable from early morning and there’s nothing left to lose. Elsewhere, the endtime angst in the lyrics is more straightforward: “We talk about the end of the world/As we go walking at night”, sings Ramsey on the album-ending “Shiny Shoes”.
Things aren’t all entirely gloomy. Perhaps the record’s best song is “Heart and Bones”, about a dream of love come true, with a traditional folk repetition backed by brushstrokes that work up to a slow canter. But even a love song has a touch of the macabre—instead of “roses are red”, it’s blood, and love comes in the time of dying, “when the apples fall.” These are patient songs, with Delta blues drifts, and one of the loveliest moments is the gorgeous “Avenue of the Saints”, the album’s lone instrumental, a lonely melody of intertwining fingerpicked guitar, a slow melody line, and shimmering brushed percussion. Echoes of that melody are picked up again in “Shiny Shoes”, and the record ends with a blend of hope and resignation (“We surrender, just to survive”), minor-key gloom and floating release. Yes, Tremolo is a beauty, but it’s the kind that should serve as your soundtrack to the witching season.