Photo and text by Melanie Stangl
Today, July 17, 2020, I turn 28. In normal times, I’d be celebrating by heading out to the first night of the Deutschtown Music Festival, one of my favorite events of the summer, with my camera in tow. I’d be seeing and shooting so many great performances, catching up with friends and acquaintances, and embracing the sweltering humidity of a Pittsburgh July in the name of our fantastic local music scene.
But these aren’t normal times. For most of us, it’s the most challenging period of our lives.
COVID-19 has upended all of our routines and thrown so many into danger (physically, economically, and mentally/emotionally.) Led by someone who rejects science and a Senate who refuses to address the urgent needs of its citizens, our country has become the epicenter of a world-shaking earthquake. Meanwhile, more recently, we’ve had a long-overdue reckoning with the systemic racism that has been inherent in the United States’ foundation and growth, and how it manifests in an epidemic of police brutality. (The work is nowhere near over, by the way, and protests are still happening.)
I’m not here to add more doom and gloom to your feed. But it’s important to note this context. Its mental health effects are a big part of why I haven’t gotten this next installment out sooner, or felt particularly able to write anything at all. (Unsurprisingly, my day job is a culprit again too.)
The world has been scary, overwhelming, and frustrating as the U.S. utterly refuses to take the necessary steps (at the federal level) to contain this pandemic. And many of the things that have helped make previous challenges bearable—time with friends and family, travel, and live entertainment of all kinds—are now essentially off the table, for an undetermined period of time.
Most relevantly to this piece, the concerts that we hold so dear, from Club Café to Heinz Field, are canceled for the foreseeable future. With the possible exception of drive-ins, it’s impossible to hold them safely. I know I’m not the only one who feels this particular loss strongly. Live music is one of my favorite things in the world.
So in honor of the festival that should have started today, and in recognition of the scene that we’ve all been missing, here’s the next installment of my Best Pittsburgh Music of the Decade retrospective series. I’m rounding out the local top ten Best Country/Folk/Americana releases of the 2010’s. You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here. (Singer/songwriters will get their own list.)
In the next installment, we’ll move to another genre. (I promise that will happen before I turn 29.) In no particular order:
Best Country/Folk/Americana (Part 3)
The Mixus Brothers – Let the Cards Decide (2016)
Start With: Luck of the Draw
Want More?: Shut It Down, The Sirens Song
You know those albums you can put on at a family barbecue, and have Grandpa, Dad, and the kids all enjoy them? This is one of those.
Multiple harmonized vocal layers; gentle, comforting acoustic guitar strums; dynamic, textured percussion; and the sense you get of hearing a wise old-timer spin a yarn at a saloon in the desert (or a dive bar in Pittsburgh) all contribute to The Mixus Brothers’ classic Americana charm. Since their first release in 2012, the Mixus Brothers have been busy: putting out an impressive six full length albums, two singles, and one EP. And if folk and country with occasional sprinkles of bluegrass and psych-folk is your jam, you won’t find a bad album in their discography.
But Let the Cards Decide, their fourth record, stands out for its catchiness and its risk-taking. These are both based, in part, on the sharp ways the Brothers tie their musical decisions to the lyrical subject matter. When they plead, the words and notes are drawn-out, a sonic extended hand. Such as the long, lilting chorus of “Believe Me Now:” “Believe me now/won’t you believe me now?/Please hear me now/There’s nothing, as certain/anyhow.” When the mood is jauntier, like the album opener “Luck of the Draw,” you can almost picture each kick drum beat and short, one-note-per-syllable vocal hit as a lead singer’s clap onstage at a packed Allegheny Elks Lodge. And in the seventh track, “Atop A Tree,” the same guitar chord repeated over and over mirrors both the words of the chorus (“And it’s round and round/round and round/we go”), as well as the fruitlessness of the speaker’s attempts at progress: “The higher that I climbed/I was always pulled behind.”
These are just a few of many examples. They’re obvious enough to be effective, but not so obvious that your immersion breaks with an “I see what they did there.”
The Brothers are particularly good with their builds and retreats: unafraid to play with volume, drawing it down to focus your attention or reflect a more intimate thought, or increasing it to build tension and energy. The song fadeout may be a mostly lost art, but they aren’t afraid of it, and it serves them well in many of this album’s tracks.
Occasional psychedelic elements—like a shimmering, wavering electric guitar strum, or a glitchy slide—add dimension and intrigue that captures your attention. This shows up most clearly in the eighth song, “Weight of the Wind,” with a pause in the middle that shifts from acoustic guitar strums into a very cool, slightly discordant electronic instrumental. Touches like this throughout elevate Let the Cards Decide from a good folk album to something a little more special.
A lot of difficult feelings are explored on this record. The anxiety surrounding decision paralysis (“I’m on the fence, and I’m afraid to get off/I’m on the fence, but the weight is too much” in “On the Fence”), a relationship on the verge of collapse (“Make it all just disappear/Is that what you wanna hear?/Sweet nothings whispered in your ear…better tell me when to go/show me what I’m fighting for” in “Shut It Down”), and garden-variety isolation (“Still climbing so slowly/feeling so lonely” in “My Every Word.”) These feelings are often expressed in lyrical motifs of nature, weather, and inevitability. Rivers, seas, trees, whirlwinds, and quicksand are all pulled in to poetically invoke forces that feel larger than the speaker.
This ties nicely in with the album title: it reflects how, in various ways, the speaker has been pushed to the point where all his best efforts seem futile. So he might as well just leave it up to chance…let the cards decide.
But there’s some indication of finding the upside of futility—acceptance—towards the record’s end. In the penultimate track “A Slice of Silence,” the Brothers sing, “There’s a method to this madness/a simple search for the cure/There’s a hope for the good life/what’s for sure is for sure.”
Here’s something that’s for sure—you can find this record and the rest of The Mixus Brothers’ music on Bandcamp, Spotify, and Amazon Music. The band is still active, playing out before the pandemic and releasing their latest single, “For the Sake of Humanity,” on June 25th of this year.
Arlo Aldo – Zelie (2013)
Start With: Highway
Want More?: Regrets, Ghosts of the Union Pacific
On their Bandcamp page, Arlo Aldo describes themselves as “a unique and gorgeous twist on modern American alt-folk.” Their debut album, Zelie, proves that tagline exactly right. Listing comparisons to the likes of Low and Magnolia Electric Company, this album is perhaps the most genre-straddling entry on the list so far. Electric guitar, though often fingerpicked, takes a more prominent role, slightly blurring the line between indie rock and folk. Keys are also featured, and their frequent excursions into cathedral-like organ (usually played slowly) add to the lush, almost reverent atmosphere. And their pace usually errs on the side of downtempo, giving those tracks a rich, hazy shimmer.
But the real star of the show is the singing. Arlo Aldo’s two vocalists, David Manchester and Ariel Nieland, are magic together. Everything matches up: their vocal tone, their passion, their harmonic sensibilities. It’s striking and beautiful to listen to. Low, soulful lines and soaring, powerful ones are all delivered with incredible emotion and skill. Their dynamic brings you in right away, and never falters.
Running the gamut from mellow, moody tracks to a couple of upbeat songs that draw from classic Americana influences, Zelie is absolutely an album to drive to. (In fact, one Bandcamp reviewer described it as “an American road trip album as it should be.”)
This time, the thread between the songs is more sonic than lyrical. Smooth, seamless transitions between tracks happen more than once. And when the slower tunes turn into upbeat ones, it’s a welcome burst of energy, never jarring. (One of these, “Ghosts of the Union Pacific,” features percussion that evokes the sound and tempo of a train chugging along, while Manchester and Nieland sing “I’m, thinkin’ bout the railroads…they’re, headin’ towards tomorrow/and I’m, stuck here in today.”)
The immersive haziness I described above appears in many of the other songs—most notably the mournful, pleading standout, “Highway.” Its guitar tone perfectly evokes a road trip through the desert, albeit not one with a positive purpose. In the chorus, they sing, “You’re not that rebel that will never grow old/You’re not that cowboy who will die when you’re told/You’re just a soldier baby/Come on home…” The extended notes at the end of almost every line enhance the emotional intensity of what they’re saying, giving the impression of begging or howling the words.
Other topics explored include romantic heartbreak (“Honeymoon’s End”); innocent, tumultuous love (“Snow Day”); and the barriers we sometimes put around our hearts (“The Ballad of Monsieur Petit.”) I confess I don’t completely understand what they’re talking about in the track “Galileo,” but it’s still damn pretty to listen to.
When Arlo Aldo give themselves room to build up to a dramatic extended ending, like in the longer tracks “Regrets” and “Honeymoon’s End,” they show what they can really do. “Regrets” in particular is stunning—a long instrumental outro veers into slightly electronic/post-rock territory, static and all. With Manchester’s vocals rocketing upward and choked with emotion, it sounds like how overwhelming regrets feel.
Arlo Aldo’s last release was 2017’s EP “Two Piece Promenade.” They still played the occasional show around the city before the pandemic, and hopefully they’ll do so again when the option opens up. You can find Zelie and all their other releases on Spotify and Bandcamp.
Ferdinand the Bull – Painting Over Pictures (2018)
Start With: Susannah
Want More?: Rockaway, And It Seems to Me Today… (Honorable mention: 4:30am)
Ferdinand the Bull, led by frontman/lead songwriter Nick Snyder and (until recently) jack-of-all-trades musician Bryce Rabideau, has been active in the Pittsburgh music scene since 2013. Citing such influences as The Avett Brothers and The Lumineers, their knack for poetic, storytelling lyricism; skilled, intricate arrangements of both instrumental and vocal layers; and energetic, passionate live performances has set them apart.
And five years into it, they unveiled their best work yet: 2018’s Painting Over Pictures. (Yes, I did snag a copy of the first CD pressing at their release show.) It’s the group at their most vibrant and creative thus far.
The partnership of Snyder and Rabideau proves that a whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Their individual talent can’t be denied, but their creative collaboration is a match made in folk rock heaven. Snyder’s words, which he sings with a slight drawl, are evocative, insightful, and unflinchingly honest. Meanwhile, Rabideau’s musical instincts are simultaneously sharp and expansive. If you appreciate rich, creative arrangements (particularly those that feature a horn section, a string quartet, prominent keys, occasional female vocals, and/or Rabideau’s signature mandolin), this is the album for you.
Not to disparage the rest of the band: they more than hold their own and deliver often-difficult riffs with fantastic energy and flourish. The words play an integral role in what makes FTB noteworthy, but the moments when the instruments just go off by themselves are also pretty special.
So many moving parts have the potential to sound cluttered or confused. But that doesn’t happen on Painting Over Pictures. It all just works.
Internal, domestic imagery frequently coexists and contrasts with that of the outdoors, or of travelling somewhere new. (For instance, “Breathin’ in the sunshine days/but walking in circles, closet space,” in the track “Better Days,” and “I guess I just won’t get to bed/I’m noticing the stars tonight/are only in my head” in “4:30am.”) These recurring, somewhat contradictory themes evoke the feeling of reaching for or trying to stay in your past, even as it makes you wince, and even as you see the possibility of better things ahead.
This contrast could also be extrapolated to how often painful, uncomfortable topics are wrapped in gorgeous, lovely instrumentation (like when that dreamy string quartet takes the lead in love-song-gone-wrong “Crossing Stars.”) Nostalgia tends to give even difficult memories an attractive shine, and the unavoidableness of our current worries can make the misery we knew seem appealing. Perhaps the best example of this is when Snyder sings, “But fetch my crown/I’m the king of this cage” in the otherwise-wanderlust-laden “And It Seems to Me Today…” These juxtapositions speak to both the inevitability of internal contradictions, and their potential to be turned into something beautiful.
The variety of moods and energies the group is able to portray is noteworthy as well. From slower songs like the tender, intimate “Walls of Fabric” and the slightly regretful album closer “Can’t Believe It’s Time,” to peppier, high-energy tracks like “Song 131” and “Better Days,” the album shows impressive range and a well-thought-out ebb and flow. All these factors combine to make it a truly standout release of the 2010’s.
Rabideau played his last show with the band back in February at the Thunderbird Café, presumably pulling back to focus on other things. (Such as, for example, his role in Buffalo Rose, also featured on this list.) However, the band is still going strong, playing socially distant live streams on their Facebook page. When it’s safe to go to shows again, do yourself a favor and check them out—if you’ve seen them before or especially if you haven’t. You can find Painting Over Pictures (and their previous album and EP) on Spotify, Bandcamp, and Apple Music.
I hope this helped a little with your Deutschtown blues. Keep an eye out for the next installment of this series, when we get started in a brand new genre.