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Pretty, pop-tinged Americana acts get a bad rap these days, and it’s not hard to see why. The past few years have seen a surge in the popularity of twangy troubadours, each more cookie-cutter than the last. Remember the Mumford & Sons song with the banjos and the clapping? Or was that the the Lumineers?
On its debut LP, 2012’s You Can Never Go Home Again, D.C.’s the North Country fell comfortably into the folk-rock genre, crafting rootsy tracks that leaned on soaring violin solos and bittersweet strums. The result was a strong collection of songs whose heavier, rock-reminiscent moments hinted at a departure from the band’s Americana inclinations, but didn’t offer anything concrete. Compositions would flirt with psychedelic elements, then pull away.
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But on its latest release, There is Nothing to Fear, the band embraces the trippy textures and kaleidoscopic vibe that lurked beneath the surface of its older tunes, keeping the folk elements its members excelled at and ditching the ones that felt stale. Led by singer-songwriter Andrew Grossman and bassist Shaun Dubick, the North Country—which also counts Ilia Kobrinsky, Michael Hernandez, Jonathan Parker, and Leah Gage in its lineup—formed three years ago as a quintet. (The band recently recruited Parker to play sax.) Brass parts add a jazzy, jubilant groove to the six-piece’s poppier moments, with the sax’s smooth tenor tone injecting a hint of melancholy into slow-moving ballads.
Live, it’s clear that the North Country is a product of D.C.’s DIY scene; the band mixes up styles and tempos on the fly, radiating the explosive enthusiasm that’s become a pillar of house shows at spots like Paperhaus and Bathtub Republic, the band’s home base. This ability to hone in on a song’s emotional core, building arrangements around a feeling rather than a fixed sound, is definitely one of the band’s sweet spots. There is Nothing to Fear’s unexpected crescendos and breakneck pivots in pace put the skill on full display.
The album is full of dramatic swells and bursts but still manages to accommodate plenty of breathing room. It opens with “The Cross We Bear,” a lush, atmospheric number that leads off with hushed fingerpicking and builds into a jubilant release of cavernous choruses, bouncy guitars, and shimmering violin. “It’s the things we say and the games we play that get washed away when we remember to forget,” sings Grossman, heeding the song’s playful aura. “Sharing Our Alone” counters the opener’s big crescendos with breezier shades of summer. Echoing oohs and ahhs call to mind the smartly arranged harmonies of Fleet Foxes, while steady percussion keeps the whole swirling ordeal moving along.
The front end of There is Nothing to Fear recalls the band’s previous work, but a few tracks in, the psych-rock explosion of “Never There Part II” makes it clear that the North Country has gone all-in on its penchant for paisley pop. Delay-ridden guitar and an overload of textures slink and slide around an unsteady beat, pairing with subtle electronics before going full-on stoner. The track’s effortless instrumentals segue into one of the LP’s weaknesses: While Grossman’s lyrics are sharp, they sometimes unnecessarily cut into otherwise excellent instrumental runs. On tracks like “November Criminals,” his uber-dramatic croons feel forced and a little overblown when paired with the composition’s delicate strings and layered guitars. The song could easily stand sans any vocals, which is a feat in itself.
The North Country hasn’t completely ditched its folk-rock roots; the band’s ability to mine clean structures from even its trippiest tracks hints at its verse-chorus-verse beginnings. There is Nothing to Fear is a sometimes muted, sometimes powerful, always adventurous affair. That cool versatility is what makes its dizzying flurry of harmonies and guitar riffs even more of a head rush and just really fun.