When Mandolin Orange released their 2010 debut, Quiet Little Room, the duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz were just another young band trying to manage powerful storytelling tools. They fell short.
The music sounded pretty, but symbolism and repurposed folklore—components of good songwriting within the band's genteel folk mien—were clumsily handled and over-obvious. On the opening track, for instance, high-lonesome imagery stumbled into cliché. The Luddite lament, "Modern Man," was meant to be funny but instead it seemed preachy.
But 2011's ambitious Haste Make/Hard Hearted Stranger reversed all of that in short order: The double album was compelling as a full-length listen, deserving of its extra time. Richly textured, the songs were built with interwoven metaphors—ships sailing away, rocks rolling downhill, four-leaf clovers withering in the hand. Haste Make/Hard Hearted Stranger remains a home-listening staple even now.
Chasing something so spectacular and sprawling presents a new set of challenges for any band. But the new This Side of Jordan—the band's third LP and their debut for Yep Roc Records—does not attempt to replicate the scope of its predecessor. At a concise 11 tracks in 40 minutes, it's a mature and personal document that cements Marlin and Frantz as one of the state's most spirited and essential singer-songwriter teams and Mandolin Orange as one of our best young roots-rock proponents. While the previous LP sounded fresh and exciting, This Side of Jordan suggests properly aged whiskey. Though freshly opened, it's been maturing for years just for this moment. Frantz throws ecstatic fiddle lines across shuffling acoustic textures, while Marlin's voice tumbles out with heartbroken familiarity, an old friend bearing bad news.
There's a science to this timelessness: Whereas Mandolin Orange initially fumbled the elements of the roots-based songwriter's trade—metaphor, imagery, all manner of folklore-drawn symbolism—they've grown comfortable with these elements. To zero in on the most evident example, the record's title shapes a common refrain in several songs, establishing a theme of distant, impossible salvation in a painfully secular world. The move inspired at least one reviewer—namely, this one—to dig out a Bible and learn about the river in question. That level of engagement keeps Mandolin Orange's truisms familiar but free of cliché.
These vivid images and well-crafted turns of phrase address everyday crises, not lofty philosophies. This is folk music, after all, and it shares your concerns: "If I showed up/to your wedding/wearing black and blue and red," Frantz sings, "Wouldn't it seem fitting?/'cuz I'm as bruised and angry as I've ever been."
The song explores the age-old concern of enduring heartbreak, sure, but the image of a jilted lover at an ex's ceremony, decked out in a punch line of a dress, adds gravity and a perfect touch of humor to the rage. It's the twist on the trope.
This Side of Jordan isn't all sleepy lows. The assertive roots swing of "Morphine Girl" plays like a Nick Cave steamroller translated with old-time instrumentation. "Waltz About Whiskey," true to Marlin's dry sense of humor, is exactly that. It's traditional in its she-left-me-so-I'm-gonna-drink shuffle, but its closing image feels fresh, clever and newly poignant: "Now the only thing/I know of a ring/is the circle my glass leaves behind."
Marlin and Frantz now own the techniques that confused or eluded them only three years ago. Haste Make/Hard Hearted Stranger reflected the excitement of a band coming into their own in the storytelling tradition. But This Side of Jordan is Mandolin Orange's first record as a band fully at ease with their milieu's methods, a continuation in their development of a sterling craft.
Label: Yep Roc
This article appeared in print with the headline "Third-time charm."