It is hard to believe that it has been six years since Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin – a.k.a. Mandolin Orange – released their debut album, Quiet Little Room. In that time, they have graced the stages of some of the most prestigious festivals on the planet, including the incomparable Newport Folk Festival. They have also averaged nearly a record a year, which can be destructive on the individual. This journey from obscure bluegrass / Americana duo to one of the genres’ most acclaimed bands is highlighted in their fantastic new album, Blindfaller.
The term Blindfaller is to resemble the reckless and destructive nature within all of us. The meaning of “blind” is self-evident while “faller” is a person who cuts down trees. In other words, a “faller” is a lumberjack, and the entire album possesses this overlying imagery of trees being chopped down. However, seedlings are planted and new lives bloom, which is a common theme in previous Mandolin Orange records.
Like their past efforts, Blindfaller maintains the duo’s flawless harmonies and thoughtful songwriting. The most surprising part of the new record, however, is that they have strayed from their stripped-down approach to add a full band. The duo has trusted the hands of others to let the music grow organically, and it adds an energetic sound. Josh Oliver adds guitar and harmonies. Clint Mullican locks down the groove on bass. Kyle Keegan adds to the rhythm with drums. Allyn Love brings pedal steel to the music. With a more expansive sound, Mandolin Orange are able to explore new depths that extend beyond their old-time Bluegrass Country aspect.
The record starts off with “Hey Stranger”, a song that draws us in with a familiar sound that could fit into any of the previous albums. This opening track leads off with a heavy sounding guitar while Frantz leads the vocals in a comforting way. Lyrics warn us “that there is danger down the line. And you’ll find hard aches and trouble” in everyone’s life. “Wildfire”, which references the Civil War, introduces the band’s new sound with a pedal steel crying in the backdrop. Three-part harmonies take effect, and it is pure magic that “will spread like wildfire”. Marlin’s songwriting and storytelling really shines and showcases how he has grown musically.
“Lonesome Whistle” is the type of song that will leave you in awe of how two voices can be so comforting and natural to hear. The combination of Frantz’s fiddle playing and Marlin’s mandolin is stunning. An almost bluegrass feel is created in the calming “Echo”. Andrew’s voice is so humble that it hits a soft spot in the heart. The track adds reference to the many tree imagery throughout the album. With climate change at a forefront in today’s society, it is within this song that showcases all the beauty of nature we are losing. “And the redwoods so tall, in all their awe, began to rust. With no bend and sway at all, that ancient dance was lost.”
“Cold Lovers Waltz” stands out as Frantz’s best vocal performance. The dynamics of the band and her alluring vocals pull on those heartstrings. Being a country fan, “Hard Traveling” is a standout. It is full-force country, bringing killer guitar and mandolin solos and a typical tale of a touring life. The song is inevitably lonely but with an upbeat rhythm section. The album ends on “Take this Heart of Gold”, which offers a change in the musical direction of the album. It is a slow, chilling song with an electric guitar upfront and perfect harmonies. It is a reminder that although things have changed, much has remained the same.
Old fans may long for just the duo on stage, but BlindFaller showcases Mandolin Orange’s new range and depth. Consequently, it contains some of Frantz and Marlin’s best some of the best work to date. Although the album is filled with songs that deal with self-destruction, there is a sincere and humble quality to the record that lures you in. A feeling of hopefulness of tomorrow’s sunrise that lingers throughout the album. These contrasting feelings elevate Blindfaller from being just another bluegrass / Americana album to one that approaches near perfection.
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