Album Reviews

Mountain Man – Made The Harbor

(Bella Union) UK release date: 14 June 2010

Mountain Man! No, not the boulder-hurling, snow-capping, tectonic-plate-shifting superhero I’ve just imagined (note to self: fetch the crayons after this), but an all-female Vermont three-piece whose latest album, Made The Harbor, is a little bit super in its own right.

The trio – Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Randall Meath – were drawn together as housemates with a mutual taste for traditional Americana, their particular brand of which defies their tender ages; two of the three are still students.

Made The Harbor’s instant impression is its supple distinction from the other acts of an increasingly prevalent and populated new folk movement: while most artists of the genre use traditional principles as a starting point, Mountain Man strive for a rarer strain of authenticity, walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

The album, indeed, was committed to tape in an abandoned factory, transporting the threesome’s sparse, tender arrangements into the listener’s presence. The effect is irresistible: intimacy is demanded, and duly achieved.

Like an 18th Century Au Revoir Simone, Mountain Man’s intertwining harmonies beguile from the outset, opening track Buffalo commencing with the sound of throat clearing and gently growing into nursery rhyme-like refrains backed by the album’s only instrument; a deftly picked and gently strummed acoustic guitar.

Far from sounding twee, however, Molly, Alexandra and Amelia’s adoption of classic folk minimalism is utterly evocative, conjuring images of Vermont of a bygone era. Animal Tracks, for instance, relates the tale of a wide-eyed venture into the reachable wilderness, and soars on the effects of an effortless progression and three genuinely beautiful voices.

Not that Made The Harbor is content to abuse the formula: How’m I Doin’ represents a smile-inducing take on 1940s vocal-led boogie woogie, the trio sounding like a more peaceful Andrews Sisters. The mind’s eye suddenly has the trio as the glamorous emblem on a USAF bomber, all romantic and sentimental notions attached.

It is with near-religious back porch folk, however, that Mountain Man make their greatest impression: Dog Song’s brand of elusive sorrow is wholly affecting; Sewee Sewee drifts through a sepia ether with natural, graceful harmonies; Loon Song channels the spirits of Leadbelly and Jeff Buckley, syncopating one with the other to stunning effect.

And Made The Harbor still retains the momentum to further define Mountain Man’s particular niche among the torchbearers of Americana: Babylon, an incarnation of verse one of Psalm 137, exhibits Lutheran sadness rather than early blues anger at the events described, while album closer River trades on the quietest of stomp boxes and a narrative that brings the album full circle.

As with all genuine, worthwhile achievements, Mountain Man do not need to shout about Made The Harbor; the quiet beauty of the LP speaks for itself, and one need only listen to understand that the band’s peers will be hard pressed to match an album as effortlessly gorgeous as this.

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Mountain Man – Made The Harbor