Folk-rock is feeling tiresome. In a listening landscape after The Avetts and the Mumfords, The Lumineers and Dawes, self-styled troubadours are aiming to out-earnest each other with acoustic guitars and harmonies. It's exhausting.
Ryan Gustafson offers sweet relief. Now based in Asheville, the former Carrboro fixture has quietly crafted stunning songs under his own name and as The Dead Tongues since 2009's Donkey LP. Montana, his latest, arrives almost exactly three years after its predecessor, Desert. It's a simmering, focused set that pulls from several swaths of Southern music, incorporating cool steel guitar alongside clawhammer banjo. His deft guitar- and banjo-picking preside in the foreground of these songs, anchoring Montana around details more than Gustafson's thematically broader early albums. The ensemble on Montana is slimmer, too, with Gustafson taking responsibility for everything but drums (James Wallace), bass (Jeff Crawford), and fiddle (Town Mountain's Bobby Britt).
Montana has plenty of pretty moments. "Black Flower Blooming" feels like a gentle springtime dream with its drifting melody and an exquisitely floating mellotron line. "The Gold Is Deep" slouches along like a hazy hallucination, while the springy banjo- and fiddle-driven "My Companion" practically bounces. The cheerful instrumentation offers tension against Gustafson's worrying lyrics. He sings about the black cloud that hangs over his head "like a disease," and how "heaven's a bottle, and hell's when it's done." "We are runnin 'round in mazes," Gustafson sings at one point, "of our own design." Gustafson's voice sounds weathered and confident—weary, yet still far from defeat. This friction makes Montana irresistible, so that these songs sneak under your skin.
The album's darkness becomes clearest in the instrumentals, as with the ominous "Capitol Blues" and the spacious, spooky "Nostalgia." Gustafson doesn't simply acknowledge discomfort and uneasiness; there are times he seems to revel in it. Montana is an honest expression of wrestling with heavy emotions and difficult circumstances, of trying to stay one step ahead.
The Dead Tongues appear Friday, March 4 at Cat's Cradle in Carrboro. Tickets are $10-$12, the show starts at 9 p.m.
This article appears in print with the headline "Sooner and Later."