The Clearing, Monocle Band‘s second album, is the kind of record the Americana genre label was made for. Their songs have elements of folk, country, rock, and bluegrass without tipping particularly far in any direction. They’ve got a pair of strong singers, one male, one female, and one standout player, fiddler Emily Lewis.
The opening two songs demonstrate the contrast in songwriting styles between vocalists Monica Marie and Bill Huston. “Medicine” kicks off the record with an amiable mid-tempo folk-rock vibe. There’s a pleasant, tuneful guitar solo between the chorus and second verse and welcome background color throughout by guest banjoist Dusty Rider. Marie’s soulful, earthy voice recalls the Indigo Girls while her abstract lyrics are singable but not particularly deep. Next up is the Huston-penned “Not If I Have My Way”, a rolling country-folk song with a bluegrass spine that shows up whenever the singing stops. In contrast to Marie, Huston’s conversational baritone singing recalls a slightly more twangy Ed Robertson (of Canadian pop-rock stalwarts Barenaked Ladies – a constant distraction to me that is in no way Huston’s fault). Lyrically, Huston is a storyteller, and “Not If I Have My Way” tells the tale of a good man gone bad. It’s just as melodic as “Medicine”, but the song’s lyrics reward multiple listens while “Medicine” lays it out there the first time through.
This contrast continues throughout the bulk of the album, although not always so starkly. Marie’s “Solace” discusses emotional trauma and recovery, anchored by the chorus “I’m going down for a while / Hardened in this sadness.” Musically the song has a great fiddle solo from Lewis and a driving bridge that lets bassist David Weinand quietly show off while Lewis and drummer Todd May push the tempo. Huston’s “All This Dark” covers similarly traumatic territory, spinning from slow, bluesy verses about the aftermath of a miscarriage to an uptempo folky chorus meant to uplift.
While The Clearing is always listenable, the record’s true highlights don’t hit until the back half. Huston’s “Lora Lee” is a traditional bluegrass song with a wonderful four-part harmony on the chorus and plenty of space for Huston’s guitar, Lewis’ fiddle, and Dusty Rider’s very welcome banjo to add solid solos. “Clear Mud”, the only song on the album attributed to Huston and Marie together, begins with a slow, jazzy groove, accentuated by a vaguely sinister fiddle solo from Lewis and Marie’s soulful vocal performance. It ends with Marie singing through entire paragraphs of lyrics at top speed, a unique moment for the band.
The album ends with the 11-minute title track. For most Americana bands (non-jam division), this would be a huge red flag for self-indulgent nonsense. Amazingly, though, “The Clearing” earns every moment of its 11 minutes and is a standout song. It begins with a couple minutes’ worth of shimmering violin, arco bass, and EBow guitar. This atmospheric start is punctured by Marie’s piano around the 2:15 mark, as she begins to play warm chords and a simple melody. The impressionistic lyrics (sung by Marie, penned by Huston) speak of new snow, purple sky, and a blood red road. The chorus crests around the halfway point of the song as the rest of the band joins Marie in harmony.
At this point, the energy backs off as the atmospheric sounds return and swirl while Marie’s piano and vocals keep the music melodically anchored. Then comes the return of the song’s most memorable vocal passage, as Marie belts “I wanna write a song about nothing / And just sing / The words exploding in space / A song about nothing / Just sing / The syllables crashing like waves.” This bit is poetic and considering it comes from Huston after an album’s worth of story songs, it gains even more heft. One more push through that soaring chorus lets “The Clearing” crest for the second time and then gradually fade away over its final two minutes.
Monocle Band isn’t doing anything especially revolutionary with its music. But they are a rock-solid group of musicians with a pair of very good singer-songwriters, and that counts for a lot. A couple of places on The Clearing when they stretch themselves stylistically are some of the album’s most dynamic moments. The album as a whole, though, is entertaining throughout.