On their debut album, Morning Brigade, an indie pop ensemble of six students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, sound like a band that couldn't possibly be so young. Brash and confident, deliberate and nuanced, they draw inspiration from the likes of Bright Eyes and The Decemberists but establish their own dynamic, too. That's no small feat for musicians ranging in age from 19 to 22.
All of the songwriting on Above Our Heads is credited simply to Morning Brigade. The selflessness is admirable, but there's also a clear sense that everyone has a vital role in the creative process. Guitarist-singer Peter Vance is the focal point, his tenor voice alternately tender ("Rough Patch," "The Crow, the Fish and the Mirror") and raging ("Deep Light," "Said and Done") as the songs ride waves of dramatic tension. Much of that feeling comes from Nathan Spain's imaginative drumming and the vibrant string work of cellist Christian Adams and violinist Eli Howells.
Mary Koenig is a secret weapon here, adding subtle but crucial touches of bells in a few songs, bolstering the percussion in others, and supporting Vance's vocals with compelling harmonies throughout. Keyboardist Gabriel Reynolds' playing is the glue: From his lyrical runs in the bridge of "Said and Done" to the versatility he shows in the tour de force "Mosaic" and its instrumental lead-in, "Embers," Reynolds delivers a masterful piano performance.
There is, inevitably, room for growth. The lyrics are often radiant ("Golden battles would fly away with each and every approaching autumn day") but also occasionally awkward ("What is more honest than a truth-bearing contest"). The momentum drags mid-record, as "A North Wind" isn't engaging enough to justify its six-minute run-time. And given that Koenig's rare lead-vocal moment (a chorus near the end of "Mosaic") is one of the album's high points, her role could be increased.
But these are minor matters on a debut that's a major success. "We'll have tales to tell when we finally arrive," Vance prophesizes on "Tales to Tell." Morning Brigade isn't there yet, but they can see the destination from here.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fresh efforts."