Mountain Man is a trio of female vocalists; friends Molly Erin Sarlé, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, and Amelia Randall Meath. They met at college in Vermont, put out an album, toured with Feist, worked on individual projects, and haven’t recorded together during the past eight years. The group just released Magic Ship that includes 11 original tracks in addition to new renditions of Ted Lucas’ “Baby Where You Are”, Michael Hurley’s “Blue Mountain”, and the traditional hymn, “Bright Morning Stars”.
The threesome still sings largely in a capella style (although there is some acoustic guitar and such). They sometimes take longish solos, but the women more often harmonize with each other in different combinations. Their voices evoke a rural Colonial America in some weird way, even though the songs’ contents are not especially historical or even that naturalistic. Perhaps that’s because while the three always sing in tune, their intonations are fairly expressionless like those old straight back chairs that suggest good posture more than comfort.
Consider the lovely tune “Slow Wake Up Sunday Morning”. There are two people laying down in bed next to each other—and what do they do? Not much, apparently, but either sleep some more or just bask in each other’s affection. There is something pleasant about the experience. But that’s it. The song ends before anything happens. It’s a tease—like “Underwear” whose lyrics suggest that all the narrator needs are a “chill pair of underwear”, “her mother’s old t-shirt”, and her “dad’s old blue jeans”, then she will be satisfied. One doesn’t have to be Sigmund Freud to be aware of the strange conflations here: from a naked innocent to an experienced cross-dresser. That description may be hyperbolic, but it is accurate. In contrast, the words are delivered in a sing-songy manner. There’s no excitement.
Mountain Man’s staid manner serves to make them sound sincere. When they sing about a “Moon”, “Fish”, or even a “Boat”, there’s a calmness about the whole affair. Nobody’s really seeing or doing anything except being in the moment. In fact, there is even the sound of frogs peepin’ the background of some tracks, such as the one they croon about whales, to remind one is not really on the high seas but just thinking about it on reflection. That distanced formality is true of the record as a whole.
The beauty of three human voices singing together will seduce many listeners. On tracks such as “Stella” and “Ring Tang Rang Toon”, enough is going on vocally to keep one interested. These songs reveal Mountain Man’s general talent. Unaccompanied human expressions have a powerful impact when artfully combined. One could call it “magic”, as the album’s title suggests. But the new record doesn’t really take one anywhere (as the word “ship”) implies.
Because Mountain Man features three female vocalists, the group is frequently compared with the Roches. However, the Roches were quirky and excitable. As the solidity of the term Mountain Man suggests, this band is more stolid. They are the anti-Roches, using the same group of tools for the opposite effect.