Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz are a perfect music match. Their voices and overall music ethos click in track after track of their band Mandolin Orange. There’s always a bit of concern when an amazing band comes out with a new album. Will it be more of the same? Or will they evolve into a sound that is less enjoyable? It’s safe to say that This Side of Jordan does exactly what fans want to hear; it is more of the same familiar Mandolin Orange sound. In short, its immediately an album of the year candidate for me.
The opening “House of Stone” is a wonderfully comfortable song. From Andrew’s subtle vocals to Emily’s gorgeous harmonies, the two come across as made to sing together. The melody itself is both familiar and fresh. It’s a delightful opener. “My dreams all are resting on a house of stone…” A bit of idyll mixed with a soft appreciation of reality. It’s a down home old time roots kind of country.
“There was a time” has a nostalgic component evident not only in the title, but in the music as well. Emily’s lead vocal delivers key lines, “There was a time when I called you. There was a time when I called you mine.” It’s a lyric technique as old as country music. It connects the listener to a familiar emotion. It’s about a bygone relationship and what used to be. It’s sad. The song itself is a lament, but has a hopeful chord structure. The song is a coping mechanism that will comfort many a broken-hearted person.
“The Runaround” explains that “true love ain’t true love without you.” Again it’s a simple lyric structure that is relatable for the average listener, but yet is clearly delivered to the listener. It’s about ordinary things, like coffee makers, and ordinary emotions, like love. The fiddle accents on this track are particularly effective. Unsurprisingly the vocal blending from Marlin and Frantz makes the song.
Before I got a copy of the album, I shared WNYC’s YouTube clips from their feature on Mandolin Orange. My favorite of that set was a track called “Cavalry.” It is a song of the year candidate. Not only does it highlight Marlin’s “everyman” writing style, but it also conveys his remarkably good guitar skills. The lyric, “I’m saving my strength for running” highlights a desire for “flight” rather than “fight.” It’s a survivor’s song, with references to war, “all the death and the glory… believing they’re one in the same… but I’m leaving my strength for running.” It’s really a stunning and personally-engaging song. It’s the kind of song that I hope to personally thank the band for writing. It hits me that hard.
“Black Widow” has a melody that sounds like the classic folk music of the 1960s. It’s a narrative song that encourages listeners into the heart of its message. It’s about a woman who seems to take the writer’s everything with little regard for him. “I see her closing in on me. Black widow, killing off the ones that love her.” Again this is a lyric that relfects a sentiment that many can connect to. We may not all have encountered the “black widow” type, but we certainly know them. What a concept for a song!
On “Doorman” we hear the mandolin in the beginning of the song, but really the vocal blending defines the rest of the track. Again the two voices blend for a unique sound. Upon first listen, these two reminded me of The Civil Wars, but after having spent many hours with their music, they have a completely different flavor. Their harmonies are of a more classic (and less haunting) variety. They do their North Carolina heritage proud with a distinctive southern music charm. “Doorman” is certainly no exception to that. One of the interesting defining characteristics of some of these tracks is the almost-hidden electric guitar. The classic instrumentation in other parts make listeners forget that it really is a full modern band. “Doorman” is one of the tracks I really hope to hear live for exactly this reason.
The more whimsical track “Morphine Girl” tells a bit more tragic tale. Making reference to Loretta Lynn the coalminer’s daughter, there’s a clear gesture toward classic country influences. The following “Hey Adam” is another beautiful and inspiring track. With a rhythmic and harmonic guitar base, the lyrics somewhat obviously make reference to the Adam of the Bible. That said, the lyrics hold a message a little different than that of biblical creation. “If it ain’t fear that holds us, it’s fear that holds us down.” Marlin continues, “Our Father loves you always.” The closest thing to a gospel message on the album, the song has a message of loving forgiveness. “Hey Adam our secret’s safe, but I hope the world will learn. Go tend to Eve in the garden, but hear these words. Our Father loves you always.” Beautiful. It’s a keeper.
I’ve realized that I’m a sucker for a country waltz. “Waltz about Whiskey” is exactly that an it’s wonderful. “Won’t someone dance with me to a waltz about whiskey and turn a sad song into lullabies.” What a lyric! The fact that the song is delivered with gorgeous harmonies, a classic chord waltz chord structure, and an overall beautiful sound (including the honky tonk piano), it’s another contender for song of the year. Just delightful.
The album ends with “Until the Last Light Fades,” lead by Emily and a subtle guitar/mandolin duet. “Please stay til the last light fades…” seems to be about loneliness, or the desire to have someone stay with you. It’s about aging and death. It’s about tragedy and reflecting on a life well lived. I would love to hear the story behind this one. It has a classic Americana/folk flavor to it, but just enough roots country chords to make it cap off this incredible album.
All told these two brilliant musicians have created another beautiful cultural artifact. One of my favorite bands making music today, Mandolin Orange prove to me that real culture is still alive. We’re not all making mockeries of the real. Instead, they have a way of remember the classic influences that helped create their music, yet they provide their own elaboration, personality, and style to the music. If someone asks me for an example of roots country music and the best of what artists are up to in our own day and age, I point them to this band. This new album is a must own for fans of country, roots, Americana, and pretty much anyone reading this blog. If we used a star rating, this album would get all the stars. It’s phenomenal. Stop reading and go get it.