One record I neglected to add to the Recommended Albums of September post from earlier this month was Mountain Man’s Magic Ship, their first record in over eight years. The trio of singers (Amelia Meath, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig & Molly Erin Sarlé) specialize in a blend of old time American & Appalachian vocal folk, the kind you might find in a Folkways compilation, and more modern songwriting tendencies. The split is about 50/50 between straight acapella + triple stack vocal harmony and one lead voice with backing vocals and instrumentation.
Most importantly for a vocal-based record, the three voices here mesh so seamlessly, yet have the ability stand out amongst themselves. The songs without any additional instrumentation hold their own amongst the more immediately approachable cuts, something that is not characteristic of recent trends in music at large. Usually the depth of the production behind the vocals and studio tricks are what pulls people in and shocks listeners, but in this case, the perfect harmony, evocative melody and simplicity of the lyrics keeps listeners easily entranced.
The song that jumped out to me on my first listen was “Moon”, a song that the group has been performing live since their first album Made The Harbor. It’s not the simplest song on the record (it features a great, shimmering guitar), but has one of the best melody + harmony combinations on the record and pulls yearnings for fall temperatures and cozy warmth out of my subconscious. There’s no one lead vocalist, rather all three combine together to tackle the melody, a rather complex and bounding one at that. All four voices (guitar included) cascade and shine throughout, achieving whatever cognitive affect is the opposite of whatever the olden folk thought was the “devil’s interval”. Just sublime euphoria.
I recently got the chance to see the group perform a few songs at a record store here in NYC, an event that was healthily attended by longtime fans. I’ve been to a few of this record store’s in-store shows and this was the best-attended by a long shot. The trio was charming, humble and hearing their voices work in tandem live was a very special treat to be a part of. After a humorous anecdote, Sarle said “alright get them laughs out – here comes a sad one” and played another personal album highlight, “Slow Wake Up Sunday Morning”. Like “Moon”, this one features a delicate guitar and lead vocals that ebb and flow like sunlight pouring through a window on a slightly cloudy day. It’s an achingly beautiful song, albeit a sad one.
The last song I’d like to focus on is one that hit me only recently and is coincidentally the last on the album. “Guilt” is a quick, stripped back closer with Meath in the lead spot singing about the feeling of stewing over mistakes and accepting your own flaws. It came on unexpectedly when I was in my office alone and I kind of broke down while listening to it. Not even a minute long, it tapped into however I was feeling that day with ease: “You can think about it / and be mean to your insides / and forget that you were 10 or 12 or even 25” is the lyric that really cut into me. On the surface, looking-past-lyrics level, it’s another old time folk tune melody and structure, but lyrically is embracing a very important mentality that more folks my age and younger should embody more often. It’s a perfect end to an album that prides itself on quiet vitality, finding power in harmony around us.
If you’re a fan of folk music, beautiful harmonies and an effortless sense of family and togetherness in music I haven’t heard on record since maybe Whitney’s debut in 2016, I implore you to check out Magic Ship along with Mountain Man’s 2010 debut Made The Harbor. If you’re like me, someone who just deleted most of their social media presence due to an overwhelming darkness pervading their life at all times because of it, this record hit the spot.
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