After the ascent of her electronic-pop duo Sylvan Esso, Amelia Meath reassembled her old vocal folk trio for a surprise second album—a charming reflection on age, friendship, and play.
Where does a sense of quiet fit within indie folk these days? During the last decade, some of the genre’s new staples—Iron & Wine, Hiss Golden Messenger, Amanda Shires—have turned up the amplifiers as they’ve turned toward more elaborate production. But for Mountain Man—the hushed, harmony-drenched trio of Amelia Meath, Molly Erin Sarlé, and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, rarely accompanied by more than six strings and a tapped foot—it’s less about finding a quiet place than forging one. They started carving out their space on their lovingly ramshackle debut, 2010’s Made the Harbor, but an unintentional eight-year hiatus halted the headway. They’ve now reemerged with Magic Ship, a capricious turn through Appalachian, American, and British folk. Quiet? Perhaps. Subdued? Never.
Success came fast for the group nearly as soon they formed at college in the Vermont mountains—online buzz, a lauded debut, a tour backing Feist. Rather than build on that momentum, though, the members relocated to separate lands—Meath to North Carolina, Sarlé to California, and Sauser-Monnig to Minnesota. New sounds followed, with Meath co-founding the ascendant electronic-pop duo Sylvan Esso and Sarlé and Sauser-Monnig focusing on respective solo music.
All three eventually settled in North Carolina, where they reunited first as friends and then as singers. They found little had changed when it came to their voices’ uncanny blend. “We all have this secret access to each other’s feelings, whether or not we’re singing,” Sarlé has confided. “That is what creates the alchemy when we are singing together.” It usually takes family members to achieve such intimate three-part harmonies with these round, warm tones. Recorded in winter, the temperature has less to do with kindled fireside moments than it does flaxen summer rays. Magic Ship glows. Yellow-gold sunbeams cast a different light on the traditions the group invoke—porch music, gathering music—even if the album’s themes aren’t always so sunny.
Magic Ship examines, in part, the tempestuous emotions inherent in the transition from your 20s to your 30s. Through vivid triads, Mountain Man remind us that growing pains never cease. “Guilt” captures the way regret can visit unbidden at any age, accidentally knocking against the present like a tender bruise. “You can think about it, and be mean to your insides/And forget that you were 10 or 12/Or even 25,” the group sing knowingly. “Or it can just be something that happened that way/That makes you who you are today/And it hurts/But that’s/Alright.” They emphasize the final three words, underscoring the hard-won wisdom of tough times.
Dance parties abound on Magic Ship, too. Meath, Sarlé, and Sauser-Monnig use their voices for simple fun during standouts like “Stella” and “Underwear.” They frame “AGT” with bright melodies and skipping cadences, situating it among the playful whimsy of the traditional classic “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” and Sylvan Esso’s own “Hey Mami.” While Mountain Man look back to folk traditions to find their footing, they’re delightfully undecided about how much reverence they must pay.
When Meath, Sarlé, and Sauser-Monnig do pay their respects, their voices are a collective bridge between past and present. Their interpretation of “Bright Morning Stars” recalls the resplendent partnership of Appalachian folk trailblazers Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard and the British folk singer Shirley Collins. Mountain Man leave no lingering space within the song’s central lament, their claustrophobic look at grief made more palpable by stark harmonies. A cover of the tender “Baby Where You Are,” by Michigan singer-songwriter Ted Lucas, takes a similar look at longing. The members’ voices exhale like one breath, the kind whispered across distances that never seem to shrink. Their tranquility resurfaces the original tune’s dull ache with a rosy sheen.
Magic Ship cuts a path between beauty and meaning. Though Mountain Man’s radiant harmonies are as pretty as they come, there’s still considerable weight to the shiny package. Quiet may seem like an outlier in this noisy present, but Mountain Man understand its power. Their clear-eyed presentation on this welcome return captures ideas of friendship and adulthood, of cherishing a sense of play even as we age.