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Record review: Mandolin Orange's conservative Such Jubilee

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The familiar and stepwise model of the music industry has, to date, worked wonders for the Carrboro duo Mandolin Orange—so much so that their fourth album, the new Such Jubilee, should be the one to push them to bona fide back-porch prominence.

In 2010, acoustic multi-instrumentalists Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin emerged with their simple and self-released debut, Quiet Little Room. Full of private, tender songs, the set spurred local interest that soon began to stretch past Carolina borders. The next year, Mandolin Orange followed that entrée with the two-disc Haste Make/Hard Hearted Stranger, an impressive effort split between simple two-piece recordings and elegant arrangements by a full folk-rock band.

The ambition—and the group's expanding audience, no doubt—lured the attention of Yep Roc Records, the imprint that delivered the group's deserving breakthrough, the halcyon and heartfelt This Side of Jordan, in 2013. For the last two years, Mandolin Orange have played major festivals, toured internationally, mingled with heroes and sold out gratifying homecoming shows. The slow-rise, acoustic inverse of the area's meteoric electro pair Sylvan Esso, they've become one of the state's most ascendant acts, poised at the precipice of real popularity.

Now, then, might be the time for Mandolin Orange to go for something grand, to wash their musical intimacy with orchestral extravagance or finesse their folk songs with complicated productions. Instead, Frantz and Marlin retreated to the western North Carolina studio Echo Mountain with only an audio engineer and occasional collaborator Josh Oliver. They quickly cut the modest, almost-minimal 10-song set Such Jubilee, adding to their familiar mix of fiddle, guitar, mandolin and simpatico harmonies only in subtle touches. It's a pleasant and endearing listen, with songs that catch the first time around and sentiments that pull you into their private world. The road shows, too, as they're better players and singers than they've ever been.

On the other hand, Such Jubilee feels mostly like a lateral move for Mandolin Orange. It reaffirms their reputation as an act loaded with promise but delivers little else than a bit more of what they've already offered. Could that same steady climb be to blame?

Such Jubilee is a record about desiring the familiar, a transmission from tired travelers unpacking their bags for a spell. Over the easy trot of "Settled Down," Marlin and Frantz play the parts of former bachelor and bachelorette, giving up on the lust of youth for the love of partnership. "Daylight" concerns the emotional and physical benefits of finding that sort of relationship, while opener "Old Times and Companions" casts sad eyes to memories of and hopes for friends back home. Even the plaintive country number "Rounder" finds its wild-eyed, forever-doomed outlaw wishing he could return to his place of innocence. "At the end of this lonely road," Marlin and Frantz sing together, "those deeds you've done, they say you'll never go home." Even when they're writing outside of their experiences, Frantz and Marlin yearn for something simpler.

The music confirms these feelings, rarely stepping outside of a mid-tempo shuffle and only once breaking the four-minute mark. Though as patient and stately as a vintage Chet Atkins line, Oliver's electric guitar solo during "Settled Down" feels as jarring as a small earthquake. That's just how staid and centered Frantz and Marlin remain during Such Jubilee.

According to modern music industry protocol, touring is the musician's way to financial solvency. If someone downloads or streams your record for free, at least you stand the chance to make a fan who later buys a concert ticket. To some extent, that model has become the lifestyle edict of Mandolin Orange, and you have to wonder if it hasn't aged them prematurely, worn down their sense of youthful adventure. This band is only six years old and in the second record of a deal that could introduce them to a massive audience. But they sound self-satisfied here, content to carry on with what's familiar and comfortable. Off the road, Mandolin Orange are nesting, both in and out of the studio.

There are, mind you, brilliant glimpses of something more on Such Jubilee. The Wurlitzer twinkle of the wonderful, Frantz-led "From Now On" suggests a touch of tropicália before it eventually settles for genteel lockstep. And "Blue Ruin" might be the best-written and most thoughtful song about the Sandy Hook shooting, as it uses the Christmas holiday that came just two weeks later to implicate the failure of our supposed shared humanity. Marlin's words and voice smolder with a quiet rage, and you want the music behind him to do the same—or do anything, really, besides drift along like this is just another song in another session.

Label: Yep Roc

This article appeared in print with the headline "Pair varietals."

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