Album Review: The Ballroom Thieves – A Wolf in the Doorway
If you’re going to picture a ballroom when you think about the Ballroom Thieves, you should picture one like the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland. It should be a big room full of screaming, half drunk hipsters. There’s certainly nothing about debutantes and twirling dancers in this sound. The Ballroom Thieves are an extraordinarily talented Boston, Massachusetts new folk band whose recent release A Wolf in the Doorway is an album of the year candidate for 2015.
The first thing you’ll hear in listening to the vocals from The Ballroom Thieves is a harsh, belabored sincerity. That might sound like a negative description, but it’s not. It’s the kind of desperation that flavors life-altering, life-defining cries for life and love. It’s in every hand-clapping, hard-strumming jam on the album.
From the beginning of “Archers” listeners get the feeling that this is a powerful and confident folk band. It’s not the subtle, soft finger picking we often cover around here. Instead it’s got a driving rhythm powered by percussionist Devin Mauch and confident harmonies. The straining vocals on the chorus show conviction. The powerful vocals on “archers never make good kinds” sounds more like something from a punk album than the rest of the Americana-flavored album.
Both “Lantern” and “Bullet” bring a careful blend of acoustic guitar and excellent vocals. The latter of the two has a healthy dose of minor turns, giving it a more blues feel than the rest of the album. Both tracks have exceptional harmonies staying true to their new folk sound. They aren’t really “sing a long” tracks in the sense of ordinary pop, but they are definitely the kind of songs that will have you saying “oh yeah!” Both tracks also nicely highlight the string work of guitarist Martin Earley.
For my money “Saint Monica” might be the best track on the whole album. It uses a soft, well-worn fingerpicking style to juxtapose an aggressive narrative lead vocal. It reminds me of something out of the 60s folk music canon. But where it really picks up is with the strings. “Can I know all that I am? Lest I forget I’m a decent man.” Really it’s an existential piece about the tensions within a relationship. It’s an everyman anthem with some of the best harmonies I’ve heard all year. It’s that good.
“Wild Woman” is the best track for having some semblance of crossover into pop country. The harmonies are much like what you might hear from a band like Rascal Flatts. The strings set it apart nicely. And if you listen carefully you might just hear an organ tucked in there. It reminds me a little of Green River Ordinance, too, at times. That’s some pretty good company for a song about a woman who has stolen his heart.
Just when you thought the sound couldn’t get any better, “Bury Me Smiling” will absolutely melt your heart through the lead vocal of cellist Calin Peters. The trio clicks for a feeling that will put listeners in the mind of the Spring Standards.
The contender with “Saint Monica” for best on the album is “Loneliness Waltz.” It’s infectiously sweet and the harmonies, again, are exceptional. “We are frivolous with our hearts. Watch them bend til they break then we pick up the parts. Then we give, we take, we save and condemn; we live just to love again.” It’s a beautiful sense of poetry and right living that comes together with great guitar and cello lines in blissful harmony. This is the new folk revival and it’s glorious.
“Here I Stand” brings more of the rollicking, all-out vocals that define the Ballroom Thieves. While “Anchors” shifts the mood down to a more relaxing place again featuring Peters’ vocal lead, it still has the powerful harmonic and lyrical content like the rest of the album. It’s ultimately a song about making a statement – being willing to sink your anchor and make a statement.
The final two tracks “Oak” and “Wolf” both seem to come just a touch too soon. It’s amazing how short a really great twelve-song album can feel. There’s something honestly “classic” feeling about the album – like it’s from a different era and meant to speak for its generation. It honestly could. “Oak” highlights some intricate acoustic work and an agile melody line delivered with what seems like ease, changing speeds and running the gamut of the lead singer’s range. What comes across as a “simple” folk song is actually a layered and intricate speech. The final track “Wolf” busts out both the electric guitars and the banjo. While it is in fact a different direction from the rest of the album, it’s also the track that should get some major airtime from modern rock stations. It’s sassy, bluesy, and just the perfect way to end the album.
This is a fantastic work of songwriting and performance. This isn’t the average three chord folk janglin’ band. There’s some serious dedication to craft here, including genre-bending tracks that touch on blues, rock, country, and true classic folk music. Do yourself a favor and make sure to listen all the way through the horn part on “Wolf.” The fervent, desperate vocals in many places throughout the album contrast so beautifully with the intricate harmonies on several songs that the album wranglers, jars, unsettles, and cuddles its listeners all at once. This is not a one-listen “not too bad” album. This is a rollicking, make-you-think-about-it album. And you’re better for listening.