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Bible Belt

  Dry the River  
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One of the many reasons EvilSponge ventures out to South by Southwest every year is to experience music we may not encounter in our mundane everyday lives. In the case of SxSW 2011, one of the most unexpectedly good bands we ran into was a 5 piece from London called Dry the River. Although various descriptions of this group termed them as "indie folk" with a gospelly edge, when I saw them live, I immediately heard something different and more intricate, which brought to mind comparisons to a much wider range of groups from the Waterboys to My Latest Novel to even The Rock*a*Teens. Thoroughly impressed by the two sets we saw in Austin, I went out and hunted down their 2010 self-released EP Bible Belt to see how Dry The River came across in a recorded medium.

In short, the music as heard on the EP lacks some of the edge and dynamic energy of the band's live sets. However, the simple but intricate melodies, gorgeous vocals (including multi-part harmonies), and evocative lyrics remain intact, which means that the core of Dry the River's sound is still there. Since this EP only consists of 5 songs, let's (in the style of PostLibyan) look at each one individually.

Bible Belt starts off with the delicately melancholy Shaker Hymns. The tune begins with lead vocalist Peter Liddle strumming an acoustic guitar as he sings, in his high almost-lilting voice, about a wedding. Fairly quickly, the other members of the band vocally chime in, as they add classic-sounding harmonies to the narrative. Then, almost imperceptible, other instruments begin to come in, including a urgent low drumming sound and a slightly mournful violin tone. As the music continues to build and the lyrics become bleaker, the harmonies continue, gaining both strength and edge without reaching any final catharsis. Even without necessarily understanding the words of the song, the musical notes and the harmonies certainly reinforce the impression that this is a sad tune.

Immediately afterwards, the band goes into History Book, which begins with the same delicate guitar and vocal seen in the previous tune. Yet, as the other instruments gradually come in, the music has an almost jaunty bounce, which is confirmed when the first chorus comes around. The harmonies have the same lovely effect, which is enhanced by the way the band uses both augmented and diminished effects to create a vaguely minor tone. Then, roughly halfway through the song, the beat picks up and the instrumentation becomes fuller, allowing the song to soar upwards as it reaches the bridge. At this bridge, the lyrics and music become more pastoral and upbeat, bringing to mind The Waterboys circa Fisherman's Blues, even as the violin maintains a slightly mournful feel. This playing with tone and speed is quite lovely and evocative, making History Book one of my two favorite songs on the EP.

Weights & Measures, the third song, begins like the other two tunes, with the guitar strumming in the background and Liddle's voice delicately arching above it all. On this tune, however, the song remains slow and somber, as if to echo the sadness of lyrics. Similarly, even though the rest of the band comes in after the first chorus, the clatter of the cymbals and the lows thump of the bass only serve to emphasize the poignancy of the lyrical narrative. The best moment of the song, however, comes towards the end, as the music continues to drive forward as Liddle seems to give extra dramatic intent to his voice. It's the kind of over-arching spectacle that, along with the 6/8 time signature, brings to mind a song like Sun's Up by The Rock*a*Teens.

My other favorite tune on the EP, Family Tree, comes next. This song, perhaps more than any other, is the one that grabbed my attention during their live set and on record, it comes across almost as well. This tune begins as all the others with the light guitar and Liddle's voice which plaintively asks, "How did I fall so far from the Family Tree? Why did you follow when you saw what happened to me?" Immediately afterwards, the guitar arpeggios strengthen and the gorgeous harmonies again break out. From there, the band returns to the main melody, yet with more emphatic backing instrumentation than had come before. Then, at the 3 minute mark, in one of the more ecstratic moments on the EP, the drums and lower range instruments build and Liddle's voice reaches upwards to exhort in what is essentially a second chorus, "Follow your mother, your father, and brother back home." The song continues to build and then ebbs away with a final refrain of the secondary chorus. Beautiful stuff.

The EP ends with the eponymous Bible Belt. Like all others, it begins simply, with Liddle's lilt taking the forefront. In this case, the music minimalism stays in place a little longer than in other tunes, but then as usual, the gentle drum beat, additional instrumentation, and harmonies begin to chime in as the song starts to come together. Finally, things become more emphatic and forceful (albeit not in any way quicker) as the band finally harmonizes through the final lyric of the EP: "The trick of it is don't be afraid anymore." And then everything fades out.

Taken as a whole, Bible Belt is a very appealing record, even though at times the music is almost too soft and the voice (gorgeous though it may be) is almost too upfront. However, when dealing with such evocative harmonies, I can easily see why, in the recording process, someone would choose to emphasize that quality. Nevertheless, I think that a different producer (might I suggest Simon Raymonde?), who would know how to focus on the tonal changes and the minimalist instrumentation, might have brought extra weight to Dry the River's somewhat folksy tendencies. Yet, in the end, that's a minor quibble when listening to such lovely music.

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         Festival: SxSW 2011 - Wed.16.Mar.11
         Festival: SxSW 2011 - Sat.19.Mar.11


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