Somewhere tucked snugly in between each individual era of folk, country, and bluegrass lies the soundscape which Christian Lopez and his band inhabit. At 19 years old, Lopez isn’t necessarily the go-to, end-all source for world-wrought calls of emotional anguish, but his greatest bout for individuality in today’s folk circuit actually comes from that aforementioned age-based factoid. Wearing a fresh face, Lopez’s sweet croon lends itself kindly to well-mapped instances of lyrical self-awareness and vibrant, sun-washed melodies, all too bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to envelope listeners in his world. He isn’t trying to understand every facet of love, and in that comes a great sense of individuality through honesty that pervades throughout his full-length studio debut, Onward.
Opening track “Take You Away” maintains shades of acoustic folk with soft rock influences, not much unlike the 1970s contemporary scene taken by the horns by Jackson Browne and fronted by artists like Dawes in the modern era. Accompanied by fecund instrumentation primarily courtesy of a sturdy ensemble comprised of piano, banjo, and electric guitar, Lopez soars on the track’s chorus while still never quite going 100 percent with his vocals. There’s a palpable understanding of enveloping music with a story and feeling rather than showboating and dynamics – something that other, more popular bands inhabiting the same genre as Lopez can learn a thing or two from. This slow-burning ballad makes for a strong first impression for Lopez and the band, smartly followed up by something livelier in the form of “Don’t Know How”, a prime example of his wearing his seeming lack of love experience on his sleeve and a fun, jangly rocker in its own right.
Another strength exhibited by Lopez on this earthy debut is his insistence on organic vocal production. Producer Dave Cobb was “the guy to go to” for Lopez in order to develop a record that keeps his vocals front and center without any technical splits being made for so-called 21st century enhancements, and the two have accomplished that, by and large, on Onward. Whilst the instrumentation remains lush and fully present, it’s Lopez’s voice that takes center stage. Having the ability to listen intently to his vocals without much anything clogging the forefront makes for a pleasant, uninhibited experience that encapsulates much about the very basis of traditional country and folk music, which is based more on an ability to tell a story than any fancy technological ballyhoo.
Lopez plays with Celtic folk influences on “Stay With Me”, inhabiting a rich orchestral melody reminiscent of the neo-bluegrass popularized by many up-and-comers in the industry, including but not limited to the Punch Brothers and the Accidentals. There’s an inventiveness that especially strives within the strength of the song’s hook that paves a shining road ahead for Lopez as a songwriter in the ever-expansive world of folk music, and paints a good picture of where he might be in the coming years once his world experience meets his ingenuity as a composer. In the meanwhile, Onward is inoffensive, vivacious folk-rock that’s delightfully reflective of the shortcomings and hopes of a young man with the whole world ahead of him.