From Coca-Cola to the literary genre of Southern Gothic, the South has laid some of the most important bricks in America’s cultural foundation. But possibly the most important—at the least, the most widespread—product of the lower states is their music. Even in a modern musical world of mixing forms and aesthetics, the sounds of Dixie are unmistakable, and on their self-titled debut album, the Lone Bellow bring all these sounds together into an irrefutably “Southern” release.
While the group officially formed in Brooklyn, the band’s core trio all grew up in small Southern towns. They’ve been lumped in with the current wave of acoustic suspender-snappers like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, but the Lone Bellow’s awareness of the genre’s breadth sets them apart from the rest. These three songsters are equally comfortable with country twang as with roaring gospel, and the album showcases their versatility while retaining a sense of intimacy. While it meanders in places—the band’s sound is not yet focused—the album is a promising debut, an array of songs that fit together as heartfelt chronicles of the trials and thrills of romance.
Even within one song, primary songwriter and vocalist Zach Williams is able to encapsulate a wide spectrum of emotion. The anthemic “You Never Need Nobody,” a waltzing power ballad, stays soulful as it alternates between pleading, praising, and scorning a loved one. It is a successful exercise in genre-blending, with gentle acoustic strumming and glistening steel guitar highlights that give way to a faux-gospel shout at the top of the rousing chorus. Williams and his fellow vocalists, Brian Elmquist and Kanene Pipkin, have much to show for their two years of close collaboration; even while belting full-bore, they are perfectly synced on every inflection.
When the subject matter is brighter, Williams’ lyrical style remains substantive, walking the thin line between storytelling and poetry. On "Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold," the exuberant opener, Williams pairs the sparely realistic “All our money’s gone and the house is cold / And it's alright,” with the abstract “We're losing blood with every beat / Our song is not a dying dream,” simultaneously telling the story and capturing the feelings of two people whose mutual love is all they need to build their lives.
From the beginning, though, the album is not without its lapses into mundanity. For most of “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold,” the marching snare drum keeps things bouncing alongside sustained power chords and sprinkles of mandolin. But everything collapses when the guitar solo kicks in; the drums fall into a vapid rock beat, and the ebullience that has been building is lost to overpowering guitar fuzz. The moment is brief, but jarring—even some of the album’s more successful songs tend to take drab left turns.
These unwelcome detours emerge on a larger scale, too. On “Bleeding Out,” the trio's explosive vocals—usually a strong suit—are just one of many elements cranked up to excess. The track abandons the group’s rural blend of acoustic guitar, mandolin, and violin for the sounds of soft rock radio, with layers of electric guitar that in this context become extraneous noise. The highlights of the album are lyrically and musically intimate—the wavering acoustic texture that predominates matches the sensitivity of the album’s themes—and by comparison, “Bleeding Out” rings hollow. The lyrics, too, are lofty and hard to grasp—with lines like the cryptic “Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth / Gives me hope that I’ll be something worth bleeding out,” the trio seems uncomfortable dealing in abstractions, especially in contrast to the album’s more successful songs of personal dramas.
The only truly effective departure from comfortable territory is the album's closer, a lazy swinger called “Button” that features a sultry Pipkin and a horn section unafraid to jazz things up. The rest of the album could have benefited from more daring asides like “Button,” but the Lone Bellow do enough already to push likely fans to the edges of their comfort zones. Indeed, those seeking the next Fleet Foxes—or conversely, the heirs to Hank Williams—might be disappointed. The album is a smorgasbord of Southern comfort from an omnivorous band, and only fans with broad palettes will eat it up.