The Lone Bellow’s self-titled debut was one of the best-albums of 2013. A near-perfect blend of emotional folk-rock songs and gorgeous, soaring three-part harmonies, the group have returned with the follow-up, “Then Came the Morning,” which arrives on Jan. 27 (iTunes).
On the surface, very little has changed about the group. Zach Williams is still singing his heart out, with Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist lifting him up. But here, producer Aaron Dessner (the National) has fleshed out their sound with keyboards, horns and/or strings on most songs. This approach comes with its own set of pitfalls: either the mix can be too cluttered or it can be tasteful to the point of uselessness. Fortunately, Dessner strikes the right balance, providing just enough texture to enhance the material while still giving them room to breathe.
Dessner’s smartest move was booking them into Dreamland Studios, a converted 19th Century church in West Hurley, NY operated by legendary session drummer Jerry Marotta. According to the press release, the vocals were recorded mostly in single takes and captured by microphones hanging from the rafters of the sanctuary. The atmosphere of the room adds an even greater warmth to gospel-infused songs like the title track and first single.
If their first album had a flaw, it was the over-reliance on those three-part, half-step slides at the top of their vocal range. It was always effective within the context of the song, but it resulted in a few of them sounding too much alike. Whether it was a case of their own growth or realizing the difficulty in having to sing that multiple times every night onstage, they’ve mostly removed them from here, and the diversity in the melodies from song-to-song is a welcome change.
But that doesn’t make the new material any less effective. As with “The Lone Bellow,” which was largely inspired by the strain on Williams’ marriage when his wife had been temporarily paralyzed after a horseback riding injury, they’ve continued to draw upon their own lives, removing just enough detail to keep it universal. Songs like “Marietta,” “Take My Love” and “Fake Roses” continue Williams’ knack for raw soul-baring to beautiful effect, while the Elmquist-penned “Call to War” features a beautiful lead vocal by Pipkin.
With “Then Came the Morning,” the Lone Bellow have successfully avoided the sophomore jinx, and it establishes them firmly at the top of the class of modern harmony-rich folk-rock acts.