We are the Willows – Picture (Portrait) – Thoughtful, WWII-themed, string-filled folk music

We are the Willows have a captivating sound, with gorgeous layered strings which are a bit more than the typical five piece folk outfit out today but still shy of a truly orchestral sound. Rather, the music feels like an intimate blend of complicated realities. At times soft, soothing, yet other moments crescendoing into powerful movements or punctuating transitions with jarring percussion. It’s a fascinating album and a great new band.

The opener is the title track “Picture,” which fulfills nicely my overall take on the album – it’s versatile, emotional, and moving in all the right ways. Layers of what sound like violins, cello (?), and guitars make for a delightful blend a bit outside of the standard “folk band” these days. The lead singer’s honey-soaked vocal is as sweet as it is softly pleasing. Laying over the top of sometimes choppy, sometimes smooth percussion and strings makes for a nice full picture.

“Dear Mrs. Branster” has an intriguing late-era Beatles feel to it (think Yellow Submarine). There’s a lot happening with the track from intersecting background lines to a faster-than-you-might-imagine backbeat. It all comes together for a surprisingly “indie pop” kind of sound. The harmonies are so tight that you almost don’t notice them. That said, there’s something pleasingly complete about the sound of the track.

“We may never grow old” is a bit of a hopeful anthem. “We may never grow old in a time when all things are known. Within a year I’ll probably be home so don’t fret…” The lyrics take mysterious turns, but the overall ethos is esoteric, if enjoyable. Soundly what you’d expect out of an “indie folk” outfit, it’s a fascinating track. The upbeat sound with complicated guitar layering helps to highlight the sometimes-elusive lyrics.

The band’s website describes lead singer Peter Miller’s voice as “countertenor” and its best on display in “To me, from you.” The untrained ear might think of it as a male falsetto voice, but it’s really a high-pitched strong lead voice. The sometimes-shrill sincerity of Miller’s voice really makes the track’s lamenting tone shine through. The backing strings fill the track superbly. In fact, if someone were to ask me what We are the Willows sound like, I’d play them this song. It’s ambient and intimate, challenging and captivating all at once.

“My New Name” is a bit more of the jangly folk sound we’ve come to expect in the 21st century. Sounding like something off of an Edward Sharpe album, it’s a little less orchestral than the others on the album. The following “Stillborn and Stuttering” introduces a banjo feature that works really well with the full sound of the band. Rather than an Appalachian mountain banjo flavor, it’s more of a sophisticated banjo sound (or a “late” banjo a la Bela Fleck). It’s the kind of song that apparently pours out the soul of its writer. It will not disappoint.

“Wedding Song” might be might favorite song on the album by both the combination of subject matter (a soldier off in a foxhole) as well as the musical construction (simple melody and fantastic harmonies). It’s a beautiful song full of hope about enduring the difficulties of war desiring to be home. The band’s bio explains that the whole album is drawn from the letters of Peter’s grandparents when his grandfather was at war in the Pacific during WWII. This track captures that moment and emotion quite nicely.

“Turpentine to an Open Wound” is a fantastically vivid track. It highlights pain and suffering, questioning the wars that humans fight at all. “Now these are peaceful days and I am a war with ways of loving you.” By far the best wordsmithing on the album, it’s a cleverly sincere track. It chronicles and comments on the complexities of a very real relationship. There’s a whimsical flavor to the melody and the rock-flavored overall sound is as rich as any on the album. Frankly, it reminds me of a good stiff drink on a summer day – refreshing and it hits hard, all at the same time.

The final track “Wondering Out of My Head” is as much “indie rock” as anything else on the album. It continues and concludes the correspondence basis of the rest of the album. The bouncing percussion and the still-stunning countertenor vocals give a deeply textured intimacy to the letters.

What we have here with this album is a glimpse into a deeply human moment between two lovers eighty years ago. Our access into this, through a family member with a musical gift, is nothing short of a treasure. It’s a wonderful opportunity to feel the essence of the art. Rather than wondering where this comes from, the band let us into their secret. That said, there’s plenty of mystery in the story. Listeners spend time wondering what the real life moments of fear and anxiety, hope and despair were like for the two people who crafted the heart of these letters. This is not an album you’ll want to miss if you’re a fan of indie rock, indie folk, or experimental folk music.

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