A tree may grow in Brooklyn, but country bands usually don't. At least they didn't. But look at this: Despite hailing from a borough in a city where it's historically been tough hearing twang on the radio, hot new It Band the Lone Bellow takes beaming pride in its incongruous locale. And why not? The N.Y. trio has the legit goods to start a trend: a moving, grooving roots-rock debut album, released today. Blake Shelton would like it; and hey, maybe Jay-Z would, too.
These are days of musical change, as such naturalists as Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers are slowly shifting the pop landscape from the pure dance grooves of Rihanna and Chris Brown to one that sounds earthier, more emotional and yes, a whole lot weepy, too. The Lone Bellow's collective ear for likable universal hooks is as surefire as its loyalty to high-plains harmonies and all manner of stringed, wooden instruments not found in will.i.am's synthed-out studio.
Led by chief songwriter and vocalist Zach Williams, the Lone Bellow will draw comparisons to the Mumford boys, of course, but also the Civil Wars, Counting Crows and, to an anthemic degree, Coldplay. No great sweeping gesture goes neglected; no heavy statement of life and love is withheld. Their self-titled album's first single, Bleeding Out, gets bigger and bolder as it goes; as Williams joins cooing vocalist Kanene Pipkin and guitarist Brian Elmquist, even the lyrics in the liner notes feel the need to shift to mighty capital letters: "BREATHING IN, BREATHING OUT / THE SALT IN MY MOUTH / GIVES ME HOPE THAT I'LL BLEED SOMETHING WORTH BLEEDING OUT."
Such is the humble confidence of the Lone Bellow that Bleeding Out is buried on the LP's second half. Instead, the album opens with the one-two shot of the rambunctious, Zac Brown-esque jam Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold and sprawling ballad Tree to Grow, which sounds morose but is actually a statement of loyalty. Zach Williams is a touchy-feely heartsleever, but he's an effective one. And with a high, pleading voice that holds only a hint of backwoods, he lets 'er rip on Tree to Grow's finale. By that point, you'll be hooked, and by the devastating goodbye track Looking for You, you'll be blubbering.
Despite selling themselves as "Brooklyn country music" — save for an innate hipness, there's nothing very Brooklyn about them, either in accent or urban grit — the Lone Bellow also displays a hearty rock edge and a sly sense of humor, especially on the delicious kiss-off album closer. The One You Should've Let Go, in which Elmquist's chiming guitars are tuned and turned up to Stonesian levels, a closing shot that's yet another surprise from a band that so often gets low.
Last year, when they were known as Zach Williams and the Bellow, I saw them open for Southern Gothic duo the Civil Wars at the Straz Center in Tampa. Truth be told, I rarely have the space (or the reason) to give shout-outs to opening acts in my live reviews, but I just had to drop in a mention of these guys. The double-bill was such a smart pairing, as both bands enjoy a puckish ornateness (the Civil Wars turned MJ's Billie Jean into a saloon dirge). But as it turns out, for all the old-timey veneer, the two bands also merged that night to provide something else: the sound of the future.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.