Sunday, April 22, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Review: Optimism runs through Mandolin Orange's latest album

Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz are no strangers to turning pain into art.

The North Carolina duo known as Mandolin Orange have been finding inspiration in adversity since they met at a bluegrass jam in Carrboro, N.C., in 2009.

Marlin, who does all the group's song writing, lost his mom when he was 18 and the theme of death played heavily into many songs on 2010's debut album, Quiet Little Room. Double album Haste Make/Hard Hearted Stranger, released in 2011, was inspired in large part by complications between Marlin and Frantz that led to them breaking up as a couple.

Then, one night in North Carolina, Marlin landed in the hospital with a broken pelvis. The accident ultimately helped bring them back together.

Perhaps then it's no surprise that a river of optimism runs just below the surface of This Side of Jordan, Mandolin Orange's new album on Yep Roc Records. Marlin and Frantz thoroughly explore the darkness with songs about fear, anger, failure and loss, then rise above it at every turn to express faith that a better day is coming.

Gospel and old-time influences come to the forefront of this 11-track album, recorded last summer at the Fidelitorium in Kernersville, N.C., with bassist, engineer and co-producer Jeff Crawford. The songs sway with an easygoing spirituality, lifting from familiar Biblical vocabularies to convey fresh perspectives on modern life and love.

Even longtime fans of Mandolin Orange's genre-bending brand of Americana will notice a richer sound and tighter focus on This Side of Jordan, the signature of a band honing in on its identity. There is a time for booming, blaring and shouting; Marlin and Frantz choose to fill the hushed spaces in between with beauty and contemplation.

On opening track House of Stone, Marlin shuns the superficial promise of heavenly riches: "Now some, they sing the sounds of hallelujah / And dream about a mansion of gold / But to each be true and to each be known / My dreams are resting on a house of stone."

The Doorman seduces with three-part harmonies and haunts with a reminder of how effortlessly death slips upon us. A bright melody belies the emptiness of fractured romances in There Was A Time, as Frantz sings: "If I showed up to your wedding / Wearing black and blue and red / Wouldn't it seem fitting? / Because I'm as bruised and angry as I've ever been." The Runaround details Marlin's realization after his accident, as Frantz cared for him, that "true love ain't true love without you."

Much like the age-old sounds that helped inspire it, This Side of Jordan will stand the test of time.

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