In 2007, while playing an opening set for Tim Kasher’s the Good Life, small-town Nebraska-native Chris Senseney found the love of his life in the headliner’s bassist, Stefanie Drootin (now, Drootin-Senseney). In what turned out to be the antithesis of a typical love story, the two fell head-over-heels for each other, and after weeks of binge drinking and smoking, found themselves pregnant. After a whirlwind three years that had them give birth their first child, walk down the aisle and become pregnant with another baby, the couple did what is arguably the most natural of the preceding occurrences: they started a band. Performing under the moniker of Big Harp, the duo got their official start in 2010 and immediately began recording their debut album, White Hat, within a week of inception. A collection of songs both intimate and acoustically driven, White Hat made for a solid debut, garnering the couple moderate reviews. Unlike most husband and wife duos within independent music (Mates of State, the Weepies), the album surprised most for it’s lack of lyrical themes centered around love and affection, and most notably, Senseney, not his wife, took on the role of lead vocalist — decisions that proved to be pivotal in their approach as songwriters.
Primarily an alternative-country album, White Hat took the Senseney family around the country, touring and perfecting their singular take on the husband and wife duo. With the addition of a live drummer (John Voris), the group entered into new musical territories, allowing for a much rounder sound. Most importantly though, touring as a full-band brought with it a unique headspace to begin work on their following release. In sessions more involved and thorough than those of White Hat, spanning multiple studios in Los Angeles and Omaha, Big Harp recorded an album that would have been impossible to write for not the year of touring and performing in a live setting.
What transpired was Chain Letters, a record much grittier than their former, packed with dirtier tones and undercurrents of darker subject matter. Whereas White Hat found praise for it’s sparse instrumentation — percussion served as an afterthought, performing their role of timekeeper free of ostentation — Chain Letters thrives on the ruckus of lively drums and feeds off the energy of the full-band experience. No longer are the Senseney’s left to rely on the explicitly country timbres of their past out of sheer convenience, but they’re able to embrace and follow the Americana breadcrumbs leftover from the more elaborate compositions on White Hat.
On “You Can’t Save ‘Em All”, Senseney wastes no time introducing the record with the muscular and near-claustrophobic distortion of an electric guitar, hinting at the dichotomy of what’s to come. The light finger-picking of an acoustic guitar swiftly layers the sturdy riff, and as quickly as listeners are able to hear some semblance of their last record, it dissipates into the sunny, wide open chorus that makes the album’s first track, one of its best. “Some People Are Born Strange”, equally intricate, yet curiously short, displays the polarity of Big Harp in a very forward moving, percussion driven crooner, echoing the scant instrumentation of White Hat. The odd time signatures of “Good News” follow with a largely folk-rock-entrenched sensibility, likely from Senseney-Drootin’s tenure in Bright Eyes, Maria Taylor and She & Him. One of the greatest departures from their last record comes in the song’s bridge with the bruting fuzz of a derivative, Jack White-esque guitar solo. With tracks both tempered and aggressive, distinct and evocative, none match the surprise of the 1950’s pop stylings of “Outside in the Snow”. Opening with a thick, metallic bass progression, weaving in and out of a steady drumbeat and Senseney’s crunchy-blues guitar lick, the song’s chorus swings with call-and-response vocals of both Senseney and his wife. It’s a track that would have seemed all but impossible in the pretext of their past material, but one that the band is able to not only pull off, but shine through.
Contrary to such sonic departures, the vocals on Chain Letters remain, for the most part, unchanged since White Hat. Senseney’s voice continues to walk the line between burly and liquored, a distinguishable pitch that’s able to single-handedly drive the group’s diverse set of songs. The addition of Senseney-Drootin’s vocals on the other hand, mark the most notable change in the group’s vocal department and does a fantastic job at complimenting her husband’s rugged voice with a blissful sense of litheness.
For all the progress and deliberate diversification made over the past two years, one lingering vexation remains: Big Harp isn’t doing anything new or outside the norm. While they’ve taken great strides in evolving their sound and have even become a better band, orchestrating a record that is free of extreme criticism, there are many groups putting together similar collections of songs with great artistry, whilst taking more risks. Some would argue that by the very nature of music in 2013, no artist is truly able to create an album’s worth of music that is entirely unique, yet, with such an incredible chemistry and by the valor of their own skills, a group like Big Harp have the potential to create a record that is not cyclical to the indie folk/ rock industry at large, but innovative. For the most part, they achieve this task with a meandering poise, but with seemingly more to offer than what is presented on Chain Letters, the future of this band’s releases is in the hands of the risks they’re willing to take.