BALMORHEA: Rivers Arms (Western Vinyl)


Posted on Mar 13th 2008 11:50 pm

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Balmorhea: Rivers Arms

Rivers Arms
Western Vinyl 2008
14 Tracks. 59mins00secs

A train passes slowly from afar, the stars are out, the fire’s flames are dying… it’s an enchanting image, and one readily conjured up when listening to this, the second release by Texas duo Balmorhea. Shunning the instant satisfactions of the electronic age, Balmorhea take a piano and guitar and leave most of the rest to the elements. The album is as crisp and light as clear morning sky, its acoustic aesthetic bracing the listener with its majesty. But the very merits of Rivers Arms are also its latent flaws, for this is an album rooted in a certain mood, and if you don’t buy the concept, there’s little point in sticking around.

The premise is essentially one embracing back to basics – in a romantic and almost primitive sense. A first listen to this album evokes images of lost American movies about sleepy American villages that progress somehow missed. And this is a sound that is perfectly suited to film – a mix of quiet unobtrusiveness and heart-hurting sentiment that will surely catch the ear of an auteur somewhere between films.

Yet this filmic sense of space is in many ways the very thing that lets this album down. After the placid guitar builds up into something definite, and a ripple of piano augments the mood, the tracks too often glide along in somnolence, when what is needed most is for vocals to take the song somewhere. Of course it seems that this is not the code by which Balmorhea operate, but that is perhaps the most maddening thing of all here. Because there are lush melodies on offer, from the beguiling, Grizzly Bear-esque country blues of opener San Solomon, and the sleepy shimmering twang of The Summer to the rich simplicities of Windansea and Greyish Tapering Ash. These all have a plangent and natural musicality that is hard to resist. This tenet, though, is too rarely dealt with successfully to be properly sustained, with only the sudden, almost casual obscurity of Context and Process able to offset the prevailing, rather earnest tone.

Rob Lowe and Michael Muller, the two men who form the core of Balmorhea, will undoubtedly win audiences over with live sets of this music later this year. But despite the occasional rich felicity, this is an album that too often slips quietly unnoticed into the rolling Texan background it strives to depict.


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