It’s difficult to sustain one’s art in this day and age without referencing our fractured political landscape. Though the seeds of discontented darkness have been at the forefront of our country for close to two years now, each day continues to bring about a barrage of grim encounters. The sad images of family displacement both here and abroad constantly inhabit indelible spaces in our heads, while around us the news cycle spins an endless supply of greed, corruption, and disarray. Underneath the headlines, the tough issues of financial, race, and gender inequality are all being valuably discussed and addressed, though sometimes the folks with the biggest pulpits see fit to move along as if all is well.
On their third full-length release, Kindness, A Rebel, indie Americana outfit River Whyless address all of these important issues by simply acknowledging their overwhelming presence in daily life, circa 2018. In press interviews announcing the album’s release, band members spoke about how the aim of the recordings was not to offer up set-in-stone solutions, but rather start a productive dialogue and a constructive conversation about things that are happening. With the news cycle moving at a fever pitch, this approach may not make the album a universal listen for decades to come, but it does certainly spark the band’s intended consequences.
“Born in the Right Country” explicitly addresses the issues of white privilege and systemic oppression. “Can you really blame me, built on a system where some must fail so that you can break through if you’ve got the right skin,’ the band sings over nervy beats that crescendo into a pleading chorus.
“The Feeling of Freedom” addresses the Sisyphean task of working multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. You work yourself ragged only to see your bank balance fall short in the end.
Elsewhere, “Darkness in Mind” examines deftly examines folks with differing viewpoints trying to settle on some sort of common ground without any preconceived notions getting in the way. “New Beliefs” possess a sunny harmonic bent that softens the harsh lyrics that take on some of the preconceived notions of organized religion and groupthink mentality. And, “War Is Kind” is just flat-out devastating performed as a lilting lullaby to an afflicted orphan.
The quartet (Ryan O’Keefe: vocals, guitar; Halli Anderson: vocals, violin; Alex McWalters: drums; Daniel Shearin: vocals, bass, harmonium) formed in the mid-2000’s while they were students at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Following graduation, they relocated to another in-state mountain town, Asheville, and soaked themselves in the musical heritage of the region.
While their prior releases were more folk-oriented, here, the band expands their palette. There are shivering synths that anchor the songs and conspicuously hum under the layers of sound. Infectious handclaps and group singalongs serve as nifty accompaniments to plucky violin strings, searing guitar solos, and danceable bass riffs. Though the subject matter may often be downcast, the arrangements and sonic interludes keep things from getting overly maudlin and distressing.
As River Whyless spend the summer touring the country with this new album as a backdrop, it’s likely they’ll have more to say about its thematic elements. Hopefully, their aims and intentions are fulfilled, and a healthy dialogue with audiences comes to fruition. Even if that fails to materialize, these songs pack enough conversation topics for days of introspective listening and examination.