Paired with Michael Rank's previous 2013 release, In the Weeds, Mermaids makes it easy to forgive last year's Kin, his overstuffed debut with sprawling roots-rock collective Stag. That double album boasted a cast of local heavyweights, including pedal steel ace Nathan Golub, Rosewood Bluff frontman John Howie Jr. and Chatham County Line fiddler John Teer. But the sound was inconsistent and sloppy, muddled honky-tonk grappling with grungy strum-along. Rank's songwriting drifted haphazardly from the steady style he established with Snatches of Pink. He leaned on clichés and grumbled the generally fetching melodies that might have united Kin's ramshackle breadth.
What a difference a year and a bit of experience can make: Stag's aesthetic hasn't changed substantially since its start, but its balance and execution have. On In the Weeds, ambling bass and sprightly drums flow smoothly as mandolin, pedal steel and fiddle twist into tuneful tributaries. Mermaids is more restrained, but the songs don't suffer. Two albums removed, Kin now feels like a team of talented musicians searching for common ground; Mermaids' rewards redeem those early missteps.
"Bring Up You" is a laid-back romp with crisp guitar licks and limber fiddle. "I don't bring you many flowers anymore," Rank rumbles sweetly, advancing with wit and simplicity. Mandolin Orange's Emily Frantz offers support throughout, her breezy belt consistently softening his touch.
Indeed, Mermaids' quietest moments are also its best. "Devil I Know" creeps along with deliberate banjo and desperate pedal steel as Rank addresses a lover that's no good for him. "I see you in my dreams/You're looking better," he quips, before admitting that he'll have her anyway. "We all pick the devil we know," he confesses.
Label: Louds Hymn
This article appeared in print with the headline "Ambition and effect."