In my experience, I’ve come to know two primary types of ‘folk’: a full-band, bluegrass-y type, and a ‘front porch’ type that’s intimate — just a guy with his guitar, singing hushed à la Iron & Wine on Our Endless Numbered Days. On Pearls to Swine, Adam Torres shows something new with a style that blends both, with more layers than the ‘front porch’ style but less busy than the bluegrass-type stuff. Surely this style stems from its creator’s interesting backstory. After releasing his first album in 2006, Torres kept playing music as he went back to college, then voluntarily taught English in the Ecuadorian Andes, went to grad school in Texas, and spent two years working on a project to clean the water of the Rio Grande river. The music he makes seems quite informed by this world-appreciation, and — at times — his latest album gets as beautiful as the landscapes he was likely inspired by.
Opener “Juniper Arms” sets the tone for most of the record: slower, emotional, with singing like the calls one would make over a valley from up on a mountain. And it plays at just the speed you’d like to hear while in the rocking chair on your porch. Although it sets the right mood, no other song on the album comes close to being as vocally majestic as this opener, so it’s misleading in that regard. Despite this, the tone and clarity of the acoustic guitar and the other pretty instrumentation is something to cherish throughout. “High Lonesome” is a highlight: the wavering singing, the simple back-and-forth guitar riff, the trilling strings that lie atop the mid-section of the track. Its power is fortified by the next track, “Morning Rain”. It’s the liveliest and sunniest on the album thanks to a quick and pretty guitar melody and cloud-parting strings. Unfortunately, these gorgeous moments are outnumbered by tracks that are less so.
The jazzy singing can’t save “Daydream”, providing a similar feeling to the disappointing “Some Beast Will Find You by Name”, which conjures the feeling of running from said beast without being able to feel that it’s one we should worry about. Even in these lesser tracks, however, are some smart musical touches. The strings of “Some Beast…” sound like the Chinese erhu or guzheng instruments, and “Daydream” features twinkling bells that could stand to be mixed louder or get their own moment of focus. Unlike the empathetic beauty of “Juniper Arms”, the also-six-minute-long “Outlands” sparks interest in the beginning with a finger-picked guitar line, but it never conjures enough steam to carry through the entire track. “Where I’m Calling From” at least has some great conga drum percussion and a pretty, wordless ‘calling’ hook that sometimes gets answered by the violinist. Later, “Mountain River” (a re-recording of one of the Ecuador bedroom demos Torres released on a self-titled 2012 EP) features a guitar line in the verses very similar to “Outlands”. Another recall appears with the conga drums and the twinkling piano that appears late on “City Limits”, a pretty but anti-climactic closer to the album.
Pearls to Swine is almost the opposite of Torres’s first Nostra Nova . Whereas the 2006 release was “a little bit all over the place”, his new album is very much of the same musical vision — one that sounds connected to the world he’s traveled in the time since then. The balance of quality is apparent: “Juniper Arms”, “High Lonesome”, and “Morning Rain” are spectacular instrumentally and vocally. In comparison, “Some Beast…”, “Daydream”, and “Outlands” never reach the same levels of beauty to get us immersed in their worlds. The final three tracks land in the middle, featuring strong playing and singing, but they don’t pack the same punch. Torres sounds great under the new, clean, and faultless production, and after this calm, meditative journal, I look forward to further musical exploration from a young man who clearly loves to explore.