If you split the difference between Mumford & Sons-style neo-folk and Lady Antebellum-style hit-country-soul, you could formulate a sound calculated for prime chart-busting. After all, bands like the Lumineers and, especially, Mumford & Sons are selling by the crapload and have shot to the top line on the festival poster, so it’s easy to understand why every acoustic strummer on campus sounds decidedly Mumfy. The title of last year’s Mumford record Babel would appear to allude to the scattering of people and the confusing of languages. Ironically, the record has helped achieve the opposite—everyone sounds alike.
Similarly, over on country radio, one of the latest models is the mixed-gender combo that belts out sweeping, harmonized choruses to rootsified, thumping country soul. Bands like Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum have hit with a string of singles that mix 1970s mellow-rock sensibility with new country’s exurban schmaltz. So what if a band took the two-guys-and-a-girl harmonies and big choruses of Lady Antebellum (minus the schmaltz) and paired them with Mumford’s bluegrass instruments, loud-quiet dynamics, and rolling, heart-swelling crescendos?
Enter the Lone Bellow, a trio of Brooklyn transplants led by primary songwriter and singer Zach Williams alongside mandolinist/singer Kanene Doheney Pipkin and guitarist/singer Brian Elmquist. They certainly have a timely sound and seem poised to break big. To suggest, however, that the Lone Bellow are essentially a product of focus grouping is to undercut how authentically great an accomplishment the group’s self-titled debut is. These 11 tracks showcase a group that sounds fully developed on its first time out.
The opening song, “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold”, is the most Lady A sounding thing here, essentially an indistinguishable new-country radio single, so they get out of the gate with a broad sort of appeal, but it isn’t terribly indicative of the record, which is packed with superior moments. Some of those moments reflect a gentler acoustic folk, but this is one band that can’t wait to go for the gusto — nearly every song finds them building to aorta-exploding vocal climaxes, the three singers pushing the top of their ranges in often-gorgeous harmonies.
The songs are all about regretting love and loving regret and being young and broke in New York City. So they don’t break a lot of lyrical ground, although “Two Sides of Lonely” is a pretty good artist’s-plight song: “Two sides of lonely / One is heart / One is duty.” This is also the Lone Bellow at their Mumfiest; with those quiet-loud patterns, the song comes in like a lamb and goes out like “Little Lion Man”.
Every song here is a showstopper, but the gospel-soul heartbreak of “You Never Need Nobody” is one of the real ringers. Starting with a placid piano and a round earworm chorus, the song achieves carnal liftoff, making quite a racket before a gentle landing, although you can’t keep these kids from Bono-style belting for long. It’s a terrifically sung affair, sometimes reviving the spirit of classic hard rock singing, which you’ll love. Still, by the end of the album, you might grow weary of all the fifth-gear passionate harmony, which starts to sound like shouting after a half hour.
The Lone Bellow stretch out on “You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional” with a middle instrumental section that could pass for Zack Brown Band-style country-rock picking flash, and the banjo-laced “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To” is the Bellow at their catchiest, maybe because it’s the only time that Pipkin sings. More of her next time, please.
“Looking for You” hits the chill-out zone, “Fire Red Horse” fetches a classic-sounding folk melody over a wash of haunting mandolin and pedal steel, and “The One You Should’ve Let Go” gets playful with a bouncy melodic dance. Overall, the Lone Bellow will be tagged this year with the inevitable comparisons provided here and with accusations of sounding trend-derivative, but the songs and the performances on their debut are simply too good to need any qualifying. The Lone Bellow is a tough album to knock and the year’s Americana debut to beat.