Since forming in 2009, Carrboro’s Mandolin Orange has grown in most every respect. They’ve shifted from an earnest bluegrassy duo to a more mature outfit that handles full-band finesse as easily as simple duo songs. They’ve moved up and up through bigger local rooms and toured internationally.
For the occasion, we’ve culled some of Mandolin Orange’s top tunes. Newbies, consider this your primer. Old fans, take the time to dig back in to some favorites.
“Where The Mockingbird Sings”
From their first self-titled EP, released in 2009, “Where The Mockingbird Sings” is a straight-up bluegrass number. It’s basic and sweet. But the EP offered a good start for the duo, laying the groundwork for the excellent folk tunes to come. This was a crowd favorite for a while at shows, too.
“Life on a String”
Mandolin Orange’s 2010 full-length debut, Quiet Little Room, was occasionally wobbly but nonetheless a good first record. The band’s strength has long been its vocal harmonies, and they showed that off for this number, one of the most confident tunes on Quiet Little Room and a demonstration of the duo's underlying potential.
“These Old Wheels"
Here, Marlin takes stock of the sounds of life’s simple pleasures: birds in the morning, the sound of fresh coffee brewing, summer crickets. “‘I love you’ in that dry morning tone,” he sings.
“Hard Hearted Stranger” and “Haste Make”
The 2011 double-disc Haste Make/Hard Hearted Stranger represented an intriguing step for Mandolin Orange. Haste Make was an elegant collection of beautiful, full-band tunes, while Hard Hearted Stranger offered a handful of stark songs by the stripped-down duo. Both sides explored intimate emotional territory, at times bitter and sad, but occasionally hopeful. The title tracks from each of these demonstrate Mandolin Orange’s dynamic skill set.
This tune again demonstrates Mandolin Orange’s strength as a full-band. Hums and an underlying organ make it feel light and breezy, with a cheeky fake-out toward the end that delivers a few more seconds of sweet harmonies.
“House of Stone”
“House of Stone” is the stunning, subtle opener to Mandolin Orange’s 2013 LP, This Side of Jordan. It kicks off with gentle fingerpicking and a slow-burn fiddle lick, setting the stage for the band’s most powerful record to date. It, like the rest of Jordan, feels auspicious, heralding Mandolin Orange’s formal debut as a band not to be ignored.
“Turtle Dove & The Crow”
Mandolin Orange’s bummer songs are great, but this quick and cheerful tune is a refreshing break. Led by Frantz’s fiddle and lifted by occasional electric guitar licks, “Turtle Dove & The Crow” explores the joy that comes from something unexpected and unconventional working.
“Waltz About Whiskey”
Where much of the rest of This Side of Jordan blends various aspects of Americana, “Waltz About Whiskey” is an outright country tune. Boosted by pedal steel and piano parts, it’s about loneliness and, of course, whiskey. Frantz’s and Marlin’s harmonies soar, and Marlin twists the knife with a brilliant line: “Now the only thing I know of a ring is the circle my glass leaves behind.”
This song is one of the best Mandolin Orange songs that technically isn’t a Mandolin Orange song. Though Marlin wrote it and the duo included it in their live sets for a few years, the song appears on Big Fat Gap’s recent Shackled & Chained (with Marlin and Frantz on vocals). The lyrics and arrangement have always been sharp, but Big Fat Gap rounds it out with more instrumental solos and a driving energy. Even casual Mandolin Orange fans would do well to get this recording.
Quiet poignancy has long been one of Mandolin Orange’s greatest strengths, but “Blue Ruin” raises that aspect. It’s a measured reflection on the 2012 Newtown shooting, with anger, sadness and a sense of hopelessness all floating between slow electric riffs.
“Old Ties and Companions”
As the band’s popularity has grown, so has its touring schedule. They’ve crossed the country and the Atlantic, expanding their reach beyond their sleepy Carrboro beginnings. On this song, the duo stops to reflect on the friends they’ve made on their journey. And now, with the support of Yep Roc and a solid fourth LP under their belt, Mandolin Orange likely won’t slow down any time soon.