PULLING THE RIGHT STRINGS Darlingside.
It's a good time for string bands. Or maybe just a good time for people who dig a variety of stringed instruments being played without a whole lot of amplification or effects gumming up the works. And that's true even if you think Mumford and Sons is pretty damn mediocre and are minorly baffled by all the hoopla.
Joining our local crop of simultaneously innovative and backward-looking bands like This Way, Tricky Britches, Dark Hollow Bottling Company, Mallett Brothers (and more) are Darlingside, who are mostly from western Massachusetts, but have emigrated their drummer to our fair seaside town and have made a record that ought to fit right in with Portland's indie-roots inclinations. Pilot Machines shows off smart arrangements and songwriting that feature fiddle, mandolin, cello, guitar, and bass, plus just enough drums to both up the energy and set a foundation.
There's certainly no shortage of vocal and instrumental talent here. Everybody sings, and well, and the playing can often be delicate and tasteful. "Still" opens by showing off this five-man chorus of voices, then pulls back into David Senft with a delivery in the Coldplay/Travis/Keane family — and his three-note bursts on the bass are pretty all right, too.
"Drowning Elvis" is more languid, opening with almost classical electric guitar work from Don Mitchell, joined by Sam Kapala with a brushed snare and then a new and very Keane-like electric guitar, pinging out tones that are later complemented by Harris Paseltiner's resonant cello. The finish here saunters off into the sunset brilliantly: "I'm the messed up cowboy Jesus/You're the horse that gets away/And I used to walk on water with you."
There's quite a bit of lost-love imagery here, only some of it completely overwrought. "My Love" is wonderfully intimate, approaching the kind of emotional kick of the Avett Brothers' "Ballad of Love and Hate," with a subtle drum opening and just a bit of warm strings and a touch of Auyon Mukharji's mandolin. "You weren't the first to call me an arrogant son of bitch but," Senft breathes, "only out of your lips could those words/Pull me out of my head," with vibrato in that finishing word. It's a powerful song.
"Sweet and Low" is treacly, though, with a Graceland rhythm and the idea that "nothing soars like falcons . . . when your one true love is gone." The song is saved by some late distortion and melancholic miasma.
With a name like Darlingside, it's not completely unpredictable that things would get a little too precious at times, and there is a bit of that. "Blow the House Down" opens with a play on "this little piggie," and moves to a take on the three little pigs where the aggressiveness of the "blow the house down" chorus sounds like a put-on. Much of the time it's just lead vocals and drums, with little vocal pops that enter and exit like a wisp of smoke, and this works especially nicely, but in other songs, like the bouncy "Terrible Things," the vocal work can get a little too Whiffenpoofs for my taste.
"The Ancestor" might be categorized as late-career Sting — that "Fields of Gold" song, particularly — and a pressing beat from Kapala can't quite save it from being overly sentimental.