Album Review: 5J Barrow – From the Dim, Sweet Light (NMF Ep 62 Winners)

If you like big folk sounds, you’ll enjoy the new 5J Barrow album. They’re a fun and experimental folk sound. In other words, this isn’t exactly Woody Guthrie folk music. There are layers of complicated sounds on this album.

The opening “Talking My Soul” is full of raw energy. Some of the vocal turns are more aggressive than they are harmonic. It’s a song of passion that seems to pull out a variety of textures and angles. The repetitions and vocals do not fit together at times, highlighting a sense of conflict.

The second track “Circus” keeps an aggressive overall sound. The strings from the fiddle and the guitars keep things moving, while the percussion gives early indications that the song is bound to take off to something bigger. It’s not exactly dance and clap along folk music, but it’s not the stuff of listening rooms, either. It’s aggressive and will keep you on your toes. The vocals are so expansive that they do not really feel harmonic so much as half yelled.

The following “Watcher” is a bit more our typical speed. Some of the fingerpicking work on the song really feels comfortable and interesting. The lead female vocal is soft and poetic, causing the listener to lean in a bit. “Where is this going?” As the other voices enter, there’s not an intentional blend. It’s more of a parallel style. The experimental elements come through a bit, although something about this one reminds me of early Nickel Creek.

“Wildwood” is a fiddle heavy tune. It’s got a heavy beat for the genre, feeling a bit more like rock-infused Americana than anything. The following “Lynette” slows things down a bit again. There’s a real sense of dynamics in this band. You can tell that they really enjoy having big epic sounds in one song and then a slow, soft element on the next. It makes it hard to pin down exactly what they’re all about, but I get the sense that they don’t want to be pinned down. They’re the kind of band that like to defy categorization. Just listen, I imagine them telling me.

The last two songs have a different character as well. “This Too” has some really nice chord progressions and one of the more melodic openings of the album. It feels more familiar than the other songs. The guitars allow for the lead vocal to soar over them and the fiddle provides some nice colorful textures. The final track “Big Rooms Bright Lights” indicates the music dream of 5J Barrow. They want to be playing big raucous stages. It’s evident and a part of who they are.

When I think experimental folk music, I usually point people to Dr. Dog, but these guys are going in some different directions. There are some classical (chamber folk?) elements here, but also a legit rock undercurrent. If you’re looking for tight harmonies like Simon and Garfunkel, you won’t find that here. Instead, this sound from 5J Barrow is a bit more about fire and passion. It’s a hard driving folk style that’s sure to find fans among those who are more interested in breaking convention rather than just another happy go lucky folk band.

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