It only takes one listen of Little Chief‘s Somewhere Near the River to know that something special is going on here. The Arkansas folk quintet takes the sonic palette that has become stock-in-trade for the genre and softens the percussive edge that Mumford and Sons’ influence has imported. This means that the banjo doesn’t sound like it’s hammering on your brain, the drummer gets to use more tasteful and complex arrangements than “more kick drum,” and vocalist Matt Cooper doesn’t bellow. Instead, he turns his soft tenor voice toward Ray LaMontagne-style emoting, making his overall vocal performances somewhat akin to Kris Orlowski‘s.
Cooper’s voice is not the icing on the cake, but the element around which all things center. The arrangements point toward the lyrics and the vocal melodies without turning into wallpaper, which is a tough feat indeed. The cello goes a long way to strike this balance: it’s hard to not listen for the beautiful tones of that instrument, but it’s also pulled back enough in the mix that a clear signal is sent. That tension sounds like it would be a problem, but it’s really a benefit. The engineer that recorded this knew exactly what he was doing in maximizing this band’s skills and tastes.
The fact that the very young band knows its skills and tastes on their debut EP is equally impressive. It’s easy to want to go for bombast when you’ve just discovered your voice, but they restrain themselves beautifully. Instead of creating stadium-rockers, they’ve created headphone bobbers and car-trip wonderers: these are tunes of travel and geography, gently unfurling against the best possible backdrop. The title track incorporates a choir that actually sings, not just hollers. I love hollering, for real, but it’s still startling and pleasant to hear actual choral contributions. “Hiding and Seeking” is the high point, as it shows how they can be engaging, even electrifying, without being bombastic. The stuttering rhythms from the cello blend with guys hollering “hey” (can’t avoid it, y’all) and a dreamy guy/girl duet in the chorus to produce a shiver-inducing moment.
It’s astonishing that Somewhere Near the River is a debut, as the subtlety and refinement in the songwriting chops would indicate a group with much more recording experience. This band has a bright future that I will be tracking closely. If you’re sick of the overwrought theatricality that currently dominates folk, Little Chief is a pleasant, earnest antidote.