Music writers often describe songs as “evocative.” It’s a convenient shorthand – if a song doesn’t make your feel something, you probably won’t return to it. But it begs the question: evocative of what, exactly?
For River Whyless’s music, I could go on for pages in response. The Asheville quartet is astonishingly adept at drawing you in through images of home – a woodshed, an attic, the skyline – all while unraveling the duality of wistfulness and sorrow that animates much of our storytelling: a yearning for the simple certainties of the past, tempered by melancholia over days gone by and days yet to come. That dialectic is expressed both lyrically and in the layers of polyrhythmic instrumentation and interwoven harmonies. The effect is simultaneously familiar and fresh, comforting and haunting.
River Whyless is composed of Ryan O’Keefe (guitars, vocals), Halli Anderson (violin, vocals), Alex McWalters (drums, percussion) and Daniel Shearin (bass, vocals, harmonium, cello, banjo). If pressed to make comparisons, I’d say that their ethereal harmonies, delicately layered strings, and nimble, dynamic percussion remind me of Lord Huron, Fleet Foxes, and The Head and the Heart. And while their songs contain the appealing folk elements of those bands, River Whyless has found a musical identity that is wholly their own – baroque, folk, rock, global – shifting effortlessly from soft, shimmering ballads to spirited numbers built around handclaps and bass riffs. Listening to their eponymous new album, I am reminded of the first time I watched a campfire being built – glowing embers coaxed into dancing flames – alive, alight.
Take “Miles of Skyline,” for instance. It opens with crisp, syncopated percussion that displays a technician’s precision without feeling cold or studied – it sounds tight, yet feels liberating. (As an aside, I would be happy just listening to an evening of Alex doing drum solos.) The violin flits in and out like an eastern songbird, with choice chirps played pizzicato. Though Ryan and Halli usually alternate lead on vocals, here, Daniel takes over, evoking in a bright and earnest tone the vistas that lend their name to the song.
Where “Miles of Skyline” cavorts among clouds, “Maple Sap” reaches roots down into earth. The song opens with a wordless vocalization, reverently hushed. Over gently strummed chords, Ryan sings of childhood memories of cutting firewood and making maple syrup. A plaintive violin melody slices through his reminiscing, accompanied by subtle percussion, as crystalline as water dripping from thawing ice. The narrative shifts from a vignette of winter’s end to a parable for the preparations we make as we trod the uncertain path of life: Is it enough to make something sweet? Start the black stove now, boil down the sap / Let the stove burn hotter, every year another flame / Am I getting closer, closer to being alone? / Am I getting older, worked like a river stone…
These places we call home – be it among skyscrapers or cedars – contain ever-evolving stories, like graffiti painted over old graffiti or initials carved into a tree that goes on growing. I’m entranced by how River Whyless uses symbols of nature and home as springboards for exploring memories and creating spaces for new narratives. Their second album reveals fully what their 2012 debut, A Stone, A Leaf, an Unfound Door, elegantly foreshadowed – this is the sort of music that brings color into a world whitewashed by winter and grief.
“Pigeon Feathers,” one standout from River Whyless’s first album, calls to mind Updike’s short story of the same name. The images in the song are simple – a dog-eared book, a kiss under summer rain. But just as Updike’s prose allows us to soak in the details, to notice each filament of a feather and the splinters of sunlight through shingles – so, too, does the music of River Whyless invite a closer look at the snapshots of our lives, as if seeing for the first time that these are not grainy Polaroids, but infinitely detailed portraits worth lingering over.