Reviewed by: Asher Wolf
With the recent Roots-fusion movement in alternative music the doors to Nashville have been flung wide open, and influence runs in both directions. As Americana bands gain increasing traction outside of their niche audiences, many have cast aside traditionalism and succumbed to the influences of contemporary pop, rock, and mainstream country.
The young five-piece outfit Roanoke exemplifies this trend. Their self-titled debut paints a comprehensive picture of the most happening intersections between bluegrass, folk, country, pop, and rock, and the record still achieves a cohesive and somewhat original sound. The album walks a beaten path but does so with expertise and contagious exuberance. Rich harmonies, charismatic songwriting, and a clean, polished production create a box of ear candy that will surely prove palatable to a wide audience.
I aimed to dip my toes into the first song of the album before hearing the whole thing straight through, but 20 minutes elapsed before I could tear myself away. The songs were instantly appealing, and a new element of the group’s sound unfolded with each track. The gospel infused opener, “Jordan”, begins with a three-part harmony over a soft organ drone. The hymn takes its first twist at the chorus, when the melody arcs downward with an adamant chord change, heralding the classic rock influence that pervades the album. As the verse strikes back up the rest of the band leaps out of the gate with a syncopated rock groove, revealing Roanoke’s full instrumental potency.
Zach Nowak, on mandolin, picks with an earnest playfulness, often noodling over the beat and imbuing the whole affair with the vibe of a bluegrass jam session. He embellishes slower numbers like “Red and Gold” with ruminative arpeggios but propels faster ones with the concise, chunky chords for which his treble-heavy instrument is so well suited. On the whole, Roanoke shines brightest on these up-tempo numbers, switching between bluegrass and downbeat-centric rock rhythms with a resolutely positive aura throughout. “Interlude/Mountain Man” begins as a lonely, reverb-laden harmonica ballad, but eventually slips into a raucous double-time driven by Jo Cleary’s powerful fiddling and the rustic scratch of Kyle Breese’s washboard. The next track, “Trouble” constitutes a thumping Rock & Roll counterbalance to the bluegrass styling of its predecessor.
Unfortunately, these energetic songs were few and far between. Roanoke’s slower tunes, particularly “The Light” and “Losing You”, evoke Trampled By Turtles’ signature lilting melodicism, but suffer from the joint vices of overproduction and corny lyrics (on typical themes of faith, love, losing love, getting it back, and so on). That being said, their sappiness is somewhat justified by the undeniable chemistry between the two lead vocalists, Taylor Dupuis and Joey Beesley. The potential of this passionate male-female dynamic (think Civil Wars) is the group’s big sell, and they take full advantage of it, singing together more often than not.
While there is no obvious standout in this batch of 11 consistently solid tunes, “Makeup” may have the greatest hit potential. A colorful introduction erupts into a staggeringly catchy chorus that sounds remarkably like a Taylor Swift hit. Roanoke may not be trailblazers but they are incredibly fun to listen to. Their pop-Americana hybrid would be more thrilling if Nickel Creek hadn’t done it in the ‘90s, but they are still exciting and talented – especially recommended for those new to traditional American music. I won’t be wearing out the metaphorical grooves on this record, but I’ll eagerly snatch up Roanoke’s next release.