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.