The Lone Bellow‘s Half Moon Light begins and ends with some distant hymnal-sounding piano lines, recorded in a presumably spontaneous way in a crowded communal setting. The brief pieces have musical and conceptual functions. It is true to characterize the music of the Lone Bellow as Americana, arising at its folk-rock, alt-country, and bluegrass edges. The melodies and pace of their music are not hurried; the harmonies feel authentic and intimate; the mood frequently solemn. The opening and closing passages fit musically as segues on Half Moon Light.
When we discover that the passages are recordings furnished by vocalist/guitarist, Zach Williams, of his grandmother playing at the funeral of her husband of 64 years, their conceptual purpose also becomes clear. “She sat down at the piano and confidently pounded out her favorite hymns with her feeble fingers,” he writes in the liner notes, “surrounded by the voices of her six children and a room packed full of our hometown community.”
The songs on Half Moon Light are straightforwardly personal in this way, and the key songwriters in the group describe candid scenes such as this from their own lives. Williams remembers his late grandfather in “I Can Feel You Dancing”, and Brian Elmqvist describes reconciling with his late father in “Wash It Clean”. The song’s opening lines, “all my life I tried to let you go / would you stay” conjure real pain and regret. Maybe most striking of all, Kanene Donehey Pipkin’s “Just Enough to Get By” obliquely describes the traumas arising around a rape and the toll of carrying the heart-burdening secrets it produces.
All of the writing on Half Moon Light seems to strive towards the essence of a thing – emotional conflict and tension, inward or interpersonal – and resolution. Taken individually, such songs might appear simply biographical or confessional on the part of their respective writers. But taken altogether as a single cohesive piece, as is surely the intention here, the music jumps the subjective barrier and becomes a sensitive and forceful engagement with universally experienced emotional conditions. It arrives at an optimism that feels authentic and hard-won.
The group’s music and musical arrangements sometimes feel ordinary relative to the drama conveyed by the lyrics. The prevailing direction is folk and alt-country. The songs are not sing-along anthems spiked by punchy choruses, in the style of, say, the Lumineers. They are instead intimate chamber pieces belonging to the singer-songwriter folk tradition. There are touches of roots rock and a distinct – maybe all-too-obvious – influence derived from Paul Simon and the slick R&B moves he incorporated in his mid-’80s solo work. At its best, though, and for the most part, the music is simple and beautiful and understated.