"We're broke in New York City/The F train takes us home," sing these Southern transplants, who call their sound "Brooklyn country music." But anyone expecting funny-bearded fiddle jams about artisanal pickles might be disappointed. The trio shape folk, gospel and blues influences into straight-ahead roots rock somewhere between the Lumineers and Lady Antebellum – from broad-shouldered anthems like "Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold" to tear-in-your-craft-beer ballads like "Two Sides of Lonely," which evokes winter snow in the BK and wouldn't sound weird soundtracking a cold spring in Music City. .
It’s hard to believe music rooted in tragedy can sweep listeners along with such potent exuberance, but Brooklyn’s The Lone Bellow creates a sweeping country rock that uses the three-part power harmonies of lead singer/writer Zach Williams, guitarist Brian Elmquist and mandolin player Kanene Pipkin to set Williams’ songs ablaze in emotion, passion and the moments where life is its most extreme. More country than that glandular cocktail estrogen-pop and steroidally bloated rock that can be found on “country radio,” banjos plink and the beat strolls with a laconic gait across “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To,” three voices merging together and rising, Pipkin sounding especially sultry, raising the level of desire denied as the song melts into a dizzying repetition of “I can’t go on this way” over and over. ? From the opening charge of “Green Eyes & A Heart of Gold,” the voices bolt through a frantic tale of losing everything for love, the drums galloping, the guitars sketching form to the melody and Williams’ voice embracing the treasure of survival.
This set, the Lone Bellow's debut album, is a gem. Full of haunting, passionate songs that breathe with country soul and a kind of autumnal grace, most of them written by lead singer and guitarist Zach Williams, the album has the feeling of a complete story, each track supporting the whole. Williams wrote some of these songs while waiting and hoping for his wife's recovery from a serious accident that left her paralyzed from the neck down (she eventually recovered), and perhaps that's why they have such emotional depth and range -- they were written out of need rather than written as stepping stones on a career trajectory.
If you split the difference between Mumford & Sons-style neo-folk and Lady Antebellum-style hit-country-soul, you could formulate a sound calculated for prime chart-busting. After all, bands like the Lumineers and, especially, Mumford & Sons are selling by the crap load and have shot to the top line on the festival poster, so it’s easy to understand why every acoustic strummer on campus sounds decidedly Mumfy. The title of last year’s Mumford record Babel would appear to allude to the scattering of people and the confusing of languages.
This Brooklyn trio traffics in polished acoustic country, but not the glitzy, corporate Nashville kind. The self-titled debut from Zach Williams (guitar/vox), Kanene Donehey Pipkin (mandolin/vox), and Brian Elmquist (guitar/vox) explores the tensions inherent to love and its unpredictable swings from high to low, sublime to greasy. The rousing "Tree to Grow," in which Williams declares, "My love is older than my soul," contains a musical climax evoking a mighty oak stretching toward the sun, yet this is closely followed by "You Never Need Nobody," in which he laments, "I try to get your affection/but all I ever do is wrong," leading to a bit of tonal whiplash.