After spending most of the young spring absorbing Red Heart the Ticker’s stunning second album, Oh My! Mountains Below, the best single word I can find to describe the effort is “sensual”, in that everything about their songs and sound feels inextricably tethered to the world of the five senses. Guitar notes bend and curl upwards like trailers of fog off of green hills, voices wind around each other in close harmonies that raise goosebumps on one’s arms, not to mention the imagery-filled lyrics that conjure everything from domestic and pastoral scenes to car accidents and pistols in dress pockets. Every word and note of Mountains feels intended, or rather, simply feels.
Southern Vermont husband and wife duo Tyler Gibbons and Robin MacArthur play a style of music for which the only shorthand is unfortunately the vague tag “Americana”, in that the instrumentation is largely acoustic, with song structures and melodies that feel like part of the rich lineage of American forms from the blues to country, ballads to bluegrass, without borrowing directly or wholesale at any given moment. The opening acoustic guitar figure on the woozy “Yellow Bird” echoes Neil Young’s “Old Man”, for example, but the song quickly veers off into its own melancholic realm, populated by prominent stand-up bass-lines, slowly reverberating cymbals, and evocations of “songs of plenty, songs of old / Songs of courtship, songs of war”. When MacArthur croons at the song’s close, “Yellow bird, yellow bird / Flight of golden wing / What makes your poor heart sing?”, it’s not a convention. It feels as if there really is, or should be, a tangible answer.
Similarly, “Snakeskin” pairs a heartbreaking lyric with a sweet-sounding arrangement of guitar and banjo. “I left snakeskin on my floor / In case you felt like coming by / Just inside the kitchen door / A heart-shaped note by its side / Telling you to walk on by / … to let me be / To let my heart get hard inside”. The song dips into memories of better days, but uses landscape and sensory details to hammer home loss, rather than the rote language of emotion, “take your old Chevrolet and park it on the hill above / The place where you took my heart, touched my legs and called it love / The place where the cold black water reflected all the stars above”. Then the song masterfully slows down, stretching out and away from its familiar rhythm to accommodate the gentle harmony with Gibbons, “Cold rain gonna fall / This kind of love won’t do at all”. The song could provide a study in smart songwriting, but it grabs the gut as much as the intellect, if not more, providing room for the listener to experience emotion rather than just have it described for them.
The Gibbons-sung material tends to be jauntier, beginning with the two-part “I Lift That Boombox”, which builds slowly but steadily through a variety of moods and tones to incorporate cello, glockenspiel, and a playful bassline. “Naked in Pittsburgh, But Inside, Full of Grace” is as epic as its title, a noir story-song that unfolds like a movie, full of characters and a climactic, unforgettable image of a car accident, “He topped at twenty feet / High as a body could / Came down on the pavement / With the sound of splitting wood”. Gibbons’s voice warbles at times like Workingman’s Dead-era Jerry Garcia, as at the end of “Small Sky Country”, or it can purr and gently emote as on the propulsive “(I Used to Wear) The Head of a Lion”: “I used to eat up all of you for supper / And still have room left for some wine”. Better yet, the duo knows how to harmonize their voices not only with interesting intervals, but with the complimentary timbres and candor. On the duet “When We Were Young”, their voices rise and fall together, backed by singing saw in a country waltz whose progression curls upward like a flowering vine. It’s perhaps the best representative example of the Red Heart the Ticker partnership: natural, graceful, reflective, hopeful, honest, sure to be some of the best music of the year.