The Lone Bellow’s joyful noise

The members of The Lone Bellow call their music “Brooklyn country” or “country soul,” but it’s got more of an edge than either of those descriptions completely capture. True, there are mandolins and violins and banjos that give the songs a definite roots feel. And the defining feature of the band’s sound has to be the amazing three-part harmonies of Zach Williams, Brian Elmquist and Kanene Pipkin, which are definitely soulful. But all this is propelled by driving percussion, exuberant dynamics and a willingness to mash up musical styles in a way that creates something truly unique.

As Williams has explained in several interviews, the band and album came together as a result of tragedy. His wife was injured in a 2005 horseback-riding accident, paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors doubted she’d ever fully recover. Williams poured his thoughts into a journal that he shared with close friends, and those friends told him that what he was writing were songs. His wife did recover, but the marriage hasn’t been a happily-ever-after experience, which becomes obvious while listening to the sometimes painfully honest lyrics, like these from “Looking for You”:

Slow regrets that live in the dark
I’ve written them down, but I know them by heart
I’ve counted the cost of this loneliness
I’ve paid for the crime and someday I’ll die
With you on my mind

This sometimes brutal honesty cuts both ways in “Tree to Grow,” a slow, droning reflection that builds in intensity as it goes. Pain and hope intermingle in the song, which includes lines about brutal smiles, wicked grace and the fear of abandonment, but ends with this vow, repeated as a talisman: “I’ll never leave, I’ll always stay, I swear on all that I keep safe.”

Several of the songs are in this melancholy vein, but a pervasive sense of humor and hope, along with several barn-burning anthems sprinkled throughout, keep the melancholy from weighing the album down.

The catchy “Green Eyes and  Heart of Gold” that opens the album captures the spirit of the album and the band well. An ode to the power of love, it’s upbeat, energetic and joyful, even as it acknowledges the difficulties:

Our wide-eyed ways may look like
A wreck where we’re from

It’s harder than we thought it’d be
We’re losing blood with every beat
Our song is not a dying dream
You’re not alone, you’re not alone

Driving percussion and a raucous rhythm guitar blend with a subtle pedal slide guitar and exuberant harmonies just this close to be shouted rather than sung. I’ll admit I’m not overly familiar with some of the bands The Lonesome Bellow has been compared to: Mumford & Sons, The Civil Wars and Lumineers, but this sounds fresh and completely original to me. As other critics have remarked, their sound seems incredibly well formed and confident for a first album.

I can’t remember the last time an album or a group caught my attention like The Lone Bellow has. Check them out.


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