The members of the Lone Bellow live in Brooklyn. On its own, this information is not particularly interesting. In 2015, this information is especially uninteresting, given that Brooklyn has firmly established itself as a veritable factory of bands, churning out groups classified under the increasingly large “indie” genre by the dozen on a weekly basis. The term “Brooklyn-based” has become an industry unto itself, and the Lone Bellow is indeed part of that industry. Unlike its neighbors, however, the Lone Bellow plays an earnest, stadium-ready brand of alt-Americana. This makes the band quite distinct from the indie trends at the moment, which are moving more toward the electronic realm. (Try counting the number of self-professed “synth-pop” groups in Brooklyn; you’ll lose count fast.)
However, while the Lone Bellow may be a relative anomaly in its space in New York, the group does fit quite well within the trend of Americana-inspired bands that have risen to prominence starting with the end of the ’00s. Groups like Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers, whose instrumentation evokes Americana while their songwriting evokes arena rock, have, unwittingly or not, spearheaded a supposed “Americana revival”, one that has thus far appealed to much wider audiences than the similar folk revival at the beginning of the ’00s. (The latter was famously encapsulated by the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?) Simply put, while Alison Krauss and Union Station are still a household name where bluegrass, folk, and Americana are concerned, they won’t come close to selling out the venues that Mumford and their ilk do. Because of this context, the Lone Bellow could be poised for similar levels of stardom. In 2014, the trio, only now on its second album, co-headlined the massive Americana Festival in Nashville, and owned the stage with aplomb right alongside the already-huge Avett Brothers.
All it takes is one listen of the Lone Bellow’s music to get a sense of why the band has made a connection so quickly. The trio, comprising Zach Williams (guitar/lead vocals), Kanene Donehey Pipkin (mandolin, vocals), and Brian Elmquist (guitar, vocals), has one songwriting technique nailed down: the crescendo. On the band’s self-titled debut and now its sophomore outing, Then Came the Morning, they spend each song building up to a euphoric moment of catharsis, with the group’s vocal harmonies in perfect unison, note for note. One could accuse the Lone Bellow of many things, but being insincere is not one of them. Listening to Then Came the Morning, it’s easy to feel that the trio wrote this music just for you, and that you’re the only person in the world that matters.
In this way, the trio can count Coldplay among its spiritual (but not sonic) kin. Though it’s easy to lob jokes at those sappy Brits, it’s hard to deny that they know exactly how to push emotional buttons. For every one person that rolls their eyes the second the opening organ notes of “Fix You” come out of a speaker, another 10 will be readying their hankies. The Lone Bellow arouses similar emotions, and on Then Came the Morning the band doesn’t let up right from the beginning. With vocal arrangements ripped straight out of the Great Gospel Playbook, the trio kicks the doors off the hinges with the opening title track, establishing an intense emotionality that doesn’t let up for the rest of the LP. Unfortunately, while one would be correct in admiring this group’s emotional endurance, it’s not long after “Then Came the Morning” that the law of diminishing returns begins to kick in fast.
Almost the entirety of Then Came the Morning mines this rise/fall theatric: soft verses suddenly give way to climactic choruses, where Williams, Donehey Pipkin, and Elmquist harmonize to beautiful perfection. To be sure, there’s a reason why the band so clearly leans on this strategy: the members are exceptional at it. That being said, over the course of 13 tracks, this emotional rollercoaster tactic wears out pretty quickly.
Some tunes are successful in breaking through this monotony of extremity. “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home” is a wildly fun blues jam chock full of tasty guitar licks. The tender “Telluride” gives the instruments a rest and lets the trio’s vocals come front and center for a moment of relative calm amidst the emotional tumult — it’s enough to make you wish for an entirely a cappella number. Fortunately, these tunes come later into the album, thus allowing the flow of the music to not get even more burned out than it already has after the front half’s crescendo worship. At the same time, it’s also a case of not enough, too late, as it would have been more to the Lone Bellow’s benefit to both cut down on the over-emoting and to spread it out more evenly throughout the record to allow for a more dynamic flow. As it stands, Then Came the Morning gets too overheated in its first half for the latter half to feel like a genuine comedown.
For any other band, it’d be easy to just chalk this up as a basic case of the sophomore slump. With the Lone Bellow, though, it feels especially more disappointing, given the raw talent that’s been obvious since the trio’s self-titled debut. All of the composite aspects that make this band so compelling are present on Then Came the Morning. Unfortunately, they’re misallocated in pretty obvious ways. There’s still plenty of reason to have hope for this “Brooklyn-based” group, but after this outing one has good reason to worry that, like the Brooklyn indie scene, the Lone Bellow might fall victim to the curse of homogeneity.