Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Barr Brothers

With the recent holiday period pushing most of the new year's new releases into the second week of January, this week presents an opportunity to visit a fall release that didn't make last year's reviews, in the form of the self-titled debut of Montreal, Quebec-based The Barr Brothers, released on September 27, 2012 on Secret City Records.

The 10-track efforts is fueled primarily by quiet and dark folk and roots numbers, with promising glimpses of loose blues rock and hearty Americana, with the devil as a recurring thematic character throughout. Recording most of the record in a basement boiler room, the approach mirrors the industrial graininess achieved by The Low Anthem (NMT) on their 2011 album, Smart Flesh, which was recorded in an old pasta sauce factory. Not coincidentally, that group shares similar roots in Providence, R.I., with The Barr Brothers' namesake siblings, Brad and Andrew, part of the more experimental outfit out of Boston, Mass., The Slip. The brothers, respectively, handle the guitar and percussion duties, with Brad assuming most of the lead vocals and multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial and harpist Sarah Page adding color and texture.

Beginning with a wash of ambient sounds, opener "Beggar in the Morning" is an unassuming start, an easy trek that builds in complexity and drive as Brad's moody lyrics narrate the scene. The rusty backdrop – while not strictly a conceptual structure for the entire album – is the sort of underpinnings prevalent on the emerging work of Okkervil River (NMT) more than a decade ago and the more recent narrative-based folk rock of Southeast Engine (NMT, NMT). It's following counterpart, "Ooh, Belle" is even more gentle and all the more nuanced, with Page's harp first making a noticeable appearance, who also adds welcome backing vocals here, contrasting with Brad's low-register range.

The pairing of "Old Mythologies" and "Give the Devil Back His Heart" advance both the collection's pace and storyline, with the dancing acoustic guitar and harp interplay of the former a precursor to the blues-laced classic rock flavor of the latter, as touches of Crosby, Stills and Nash, Led Zeppelin and The Grateful Dead help cast the tale of the hillside wanderer. Meanwhile, "Cloud (for Lhasa)" is as light and floating as its title suggests, pointing to the wistful influence of George Harrison, and although "The Devil's Harp" obviously highlights Page's distinctive instrument, its the most western-flavored offering in the set, as if some confrontation with Lucifer is at play on some mountain pass in Colorado or New Mexico. It's an interesting direction for a folk rock outfit out of Montreal.

As the record's true outlier, "Lord, I Just Can't Keep From Crying"is straight out of the messy blues currently popularized by The Black Keys (NMT). Brad's electric parts are raw and snarly, a sizable departure from the intentionally quiet folk material earlier on, and Andrew's drumming is unrestrained and pulsing, with Vial's bass rumbling along in the background. But it is a challenge to pick out where Page's harp fits in here.

The dusty trail ramblers return on "Deacon's Son," a pioneer's adventure westward punctuated by Andrew's clip-clop percussion and Vial's trippy vibraphone, with the somewhat strange inclusion of steel drum jangle launching the number's extended jam. "Held My Head" arcs back to the contemplative quiet of the album's early cuts, and "Let There Be Horses" resolves the compilation in a smoky haze comparable to Wilco's (NMT) more simplified moments, like "Jesus, Etc" or "Hummingbird."

Come for: "Beggar in the Morning"
Stay for: "Old Mythologies"
You'll be surprised by: "Lord, I Just Can't Keep From Crying"

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