On Mandolin Orange's third release, This Side Of Jordan, there's a Lightnin' Hopkins lyric, "If fate's an old woodpecker then I'm an old chunk of wood." "I love the imagery that creates," Andrew Marlin, the duo's lyricist says, "You just picture death as this woodpecker that lands on your shoulder and starts chipping away at you until there's finally nothing left." In 2011 around the release of Mandolin Orange's acclaimed Haste Make/ Hard Hearted Stranger, Marlin had a near fatal accident. "It was scary," Emily Frantz, the other half of the North Carolinian duo says, "But ultimately it brought us together during a time when we needed a nudge in that direction."|
This Side Of Jordan is the story of that healing process, with tales of love and loss, told honest and bare. The opener, "House of Stone," quietly fades in with the hush of Frantz's fiddle then Marlin's guitar joins her, blooming. This moment of beauty is a gentle easing into the record that's drenched deep in the traditional music of Southern Appalachia. Since meeting at a local jam in Chapel Hill in 2009, Marlin and Franz have intertwined gospel, folk, and bluegrass but never so seamlessly as now.
Recorded at the Fideltorium in Kernersville, North Carolina with bassist Jeff Crawford and a backing band, This Side Of Jordan still maintains Mandolin Orange's modest aesthetic with pure and calming sounds. It's a fitting juxtaposition to Marlin's undeniable lyricism. Religious faith and fable thread throughout the record with Biblical references used to "convey a different point," Frantz says. "In the south especially, we hear the Bible construed in any and every way to justify people's comforts and discomforts," Marlin further explains, "and it's so frustrating to watch those stories be used to limit people's happiness." This sentiment inspired "Hey Adam," where Marlin and Frantz urge in unison during the chorus, "Our Father loves you all ways."
But this is not strictly a lyrical record. The duo's understanding of classic country, rock, and blues naturally appears. "Waltz About Whisky" swings like a honky tonk thanks to Nathan Golub's bending pedal steel as Marlin and Frantz plead, "Won't someone dance with me to a waltz about whisky and turn my sad songs to lullabies?" When Marlin's busy guitar weaves "Black Widow," Josh Oliver's sparse piano chords frame the track until its eerie conclusion. And "Morphine Girl" lazily trudges to James Wallace's drum while Ryan Gustafson conjures on electric guitar.
The closer, "Until The Last Light Fades," was written before Marlin met Frantz. With just Marlin's mandolin and Frantz's guitar, it's the most fragile track on the record. Although it's always been one of the duo's favorites to play, it didn't feel right on either of their previous releases. "It was so rewarding to have held out and have it come full circle," Frantz explains in choosing the track to end the record. And as Frantz sings, "Born to die, born to die, darling you'll live no longer than your years," it comes across like an old adage, something faintly familiar.
Marlin and Frantz have rambled through the dark and came out together on This Side Of Jordan more confident than ever. They've made simply structured songs with easy chords and humble harmonies. These are the hymns that Mandolin Orange was meant to offer.
Jonah Tolchin's Yep Roc debut album Clover Lane will be released in July 2014, and Tolchin will be back on the road, touring with Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin, Joseph Arthur, Christopher Paul Stelling, and other artists. This follows recent appearances with Tom Paxton, Chris Smither, Rickie Lee Jones, Deer Tick, Burton Cummings, and Tony Joe White. Tolchin has also appeared at SXSW Music Festival, Folk Alliance International, the Newport Folk Festival, and Falcon Ridge Folk Festival.
The album, produced by Marvin Etzioni (Lone Justice) and engineered by Anderson East in Nashville, includes Chris Scruggs, Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), John McCauley (Deer Tick), Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson), and more. It was mixed in Silverlake, California with Sheldon Gomberg (Charlie Musselwhite, Ben Harper) and mastered by Bernie Grundman. Previously, Tolchin independently released Criminal Man, recorded at Dirt Floor with Eric Lichter along with the help of musicians Ben Knox Miller of Low Anthem and Brown Bird's MorganEve Swain and the late, great David Lamb. His album 5 Dollar EP, also produced by Etzioni, came out in 2013.
Clover Lane gets its name from an astonishing coincidence. Tolchin grew up in New Jersey on Clover Lane. As he tells it, "My parents bought the Clover Lane house in 1996. Fast forward to 2012. At the suggestion of a friend, record producer Marvin Etzioni came out to a show of mine in Los Angeles (Room 5). After an inspired conversation, a few weeks later Marvin and I were recording an album together in Nashville." The pivotal phone call to Etzioni that night had come from Jonah's friend, singer-songwriter Alex Wright. He and his wife Chris had met Marvin through their friend and neighbor in LA, Anna Serridge. When Jonah met Anna at the Wright's, he discovered, quite by chance, that she had lived in the very same house on Clover Lane and had sold it to Tolchin's parents sixteen years earlier.
Tolchin says, "I am a believer in a deeper meaning behind life. This record is a passionate manifestation of the cosmos in perfect harmony. The house I grew up in on Clover Lane is the center of the spider's web from which the interconnected strands have been woven into these songs and recordings."
In his younger days, a self-described "rebellious child," Tolchin ended up dropping out of his local public high school, running afoul of the law, and lapsing into depression. He spent a year being homeschooled on Clover Lane while honing his guitar skills. "I realized that I needed an outlet for this energy I had," he says, looking back. "It was then that I found out that my dad had lived in Mississippi for a time. He introduced me to the blues. I really felt a connection with that way of expressing myself and dealing with these pent up feelings and problems that we all have."
Tolchin's interest in electric blues grew to encompass its acoustic predecessors, which in turn lead to him discover and embrace other traditional folk forms. From Guthrie's talking blues to the unyielding pulse of oldtime stringband music, Tolchin absorbed it, attempted to play it, and in the process found his own voice as a songwriter and a singer. His style, illustrated so convincingly on his Yep Roc debut Clover Lane, bridges the gap between classic folk self-sufficiency and punk's DIY defiance with a uniquely poetic, openhearted sensibility at its core.
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