Editor’s Note: The following review is written by Katie Powderly. She reached out to us, asking if we’d be up for publishing her take on the latest record by Mandolin Orange. Such is why this is under the “From The Audience” moniker: Any time anyone wants to write something for us in this context, we’ll forever be happy to publish it. To learn more about Katie, check out her Facebook page here. The credit for the photo of her goes to Emily Gude.
Perhaps there are things more powerful on this earth than a man and a woman singing together in effortless harmony, but I’m not sure quite what that would be. Such is the case with North Carolina folk duo Mandolin Orange. They just released their fifth studio album, “Blindfaller,” and the two continue to do what they do best: Quietly go about the business of punching you right in the gut, without ever actually touching you.
For those unfamiliar with their music, it is time to get hip. Comprised of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, the duo has demonstrated an ability to craft timeless songs seemingly out of the ether. Songwriter Andrew Marlin creates the framework of the songs with his lyrics and simple, yet haunting, melodies. Then, he and Emily Frantz flesh out the arrangements, adding instrumentation and harmonies. The two take turns playing guitar, adding fiddle, mandolin, and sometimes banjo. For this recording, they have added a full band to fill out their sound, which works well. In the midst of the songs’ foundations, one element soars to the foreground: Andrew and Emily’s harmony vocals that bounce and weave on a bed of melody. And the lyrics. Those lyrics.
Andrew Marlin embodies the characteristics of any exceptional songwriter: He is quietly observant, adept at creating compelling narratives using an economy of language. Songwriting is not a long-form art, and Marlin needs very little time to make an impact with his words. Historically relying heavily on the use of metaphor to create cryptic yet interpretable narratives, this album marks a departure from that writing style into the world of very literal language.
Track two, “Wildfire,” is a scathing indictment of some of the inhabitants of Andrew’s southern home. It’s criticizing “the rebels” who “run wild,” who romanticize the historical legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism, who perpetuate the myth that the entire South is ignorant and racist, and who pine for the past as opposed to focusing on building a future.
Civil war came, civil war went
Brother fought brother, the south was spent
But its true demise was hatred, passed down through the years
It should have been different, it could have been easy
But pride has a way of holding too firm to history
And it burns like wildfire
I was born a southern son
In a small southern town where the rebels run wild
They beat their chest and they swear: we’re gonna rise again
In just one short verse, he deftly positions himself in the context of the small Southern town, paradoxically both a part of it and simultaneously separate because of the “wild” behaviors of “the rebels.” He is the South’s native son — and therefore an integral part of it — though he remains detached from those who would have been his peers, divided along lines of ideology. Marlin doesn’t need to “rise again” because he has not fallen in the first place. He’s not allowed himself to succumb to the racist beliefs passed down like poison through the veins in the lineage of some of his neighbors. Pretty poignant and rather political for a modern day folk album, yes?
Though Andrew and Emily’s vocal delivery is understated, subtle, and almost soft-spoken, these songs prove that they are not to be mistaken as shy or hesitant. There is nothing reluctant about the messages herein. They know exactly what they’re doing.
And “Blindfaller” is full of zingers just as potent, leaving you to toss and turn them over in your mind throughout the quiet of your day. For example:
When did all the good times turn to hard lines on my face? — “My Blinded Heart”
Whiskey never holds you like a good girl can. — “Hard Travelin’”
Now she’s the one that you call “home.” — “Cold Lover’s Waltz”
When did all the sad songs that we used to know come to haunt me so each lonely night? — “My Blinded Heart”
Perhaps the most charming aspect of their music is that you must pay attention in order to ascertain their underlying lyrical messages. Playing softly in the background, their songs just sound pretty. Yet upon closer inspection, they are highly political, they are unafraid to take a stand.
And take a stand is what Mandolin Orange recently did upon finding out via “The Wall Street Journal” that Mike Pence, Republican Party nominee for Vice President of the United States, had used one of their songs at a rally without permission. The duo reflected on Pence’s transgression, and then penned a response on their website decrying his actions and publicly stating their opposition to his politics.