Black Prairie

On Black Prairie's debut, "Feast of the Hunters' Moon," listeners caught an introduction to the broad musical inclinations of The Decemberists members Chris Funk, Nate Query and Jenny Conlee and fellow Portland musicians Annalisa Tornfelt and Jon Neufeld, classic instrumental string-band tones mixing with the vibrant bounce of Romani music and bursts of Tornfelt vocal-led pop.

The new "A Tear in the Eye is a Wound in the Heart" -- out September 18, 2012 via Sugar Hill Records -- goes far deeper than an introduction, offering a more intimate, layered look into the five bandmates' predilections and abilities, and a snapshot of a group that's grown from a side project into a focused, full-fledged band.

Funk and Query initially hatched the idea for Black Prairie as a way to explore instrumental string band music during The Decemberists' downtime, and those beginnings aren't absent on "A Tear in the Eye." But the growth from idea into five-part whole is immediately present, as Tornfelt's sweetly harmonied pop takes more of the foreground, and the band digs deeper into the traditions studied on their debut.

The overriding focus in writing "A Tear in the Eye," Neufeld says, was simply to follow each member's creative impulses, in whatever stylistic form they took.

"I don't feel like there's any boundaries in this band at all," he says. "That feeling of freedom, of, 'Yeah, let's do that, let's do this.' It's pretty free-flowing in that way."

The album offers something of an accidental roadmap pointing toward what and who inspired many of those impulses, too. A The Band-esque brand of loose-groove, heart-forward Americana drives "Richard Manuel"; the bandmates trade exultant bluegrass leads through "For the Love of John Hartford"; and the kind of energetic gallop that permeates the music of famed Romani group Taraf de Haïdouks stomps through Black Prairie's "Taraf." Other "A Tear in the Eye" inspirations come through a little more veiled -- like the impulse that sparked album track "34 Wishes," which Query says started under the working title "Metal Song."

"We were trying to make, 'What would a heavy metal song sound like on these instruments?'" he says, laughing, of the song's early collaborative genesis alongside Neufeld. "He came to my house and we literally opened my computer, listened to Mastodon and stole riffs from them, put them through the lens of Dobro and acoustic guitar."

That kind of marked eclecticism makes for an album of quick, wide twists and turns, and to Funk, also makes "A Tear in the Eye" a wholly honest picture of who the members of Black Prairie are.

"I think it's all of our influences and all of us," Funk says. "In this day and age people say, 'It's a singles market, people aren't listening to albums as much anymore and they're listened to things on shuffle.' To me, this is like a great shuffle. It's our iPods on shuffle, for sure."

And while you can't necessarily draw a definitive line between "A Tear in the Eye" tracks and a certain member's music collection, accordion player/singer Conlee recognizes how individual sonic strengths and loves build up the whole of Black Prairie.

"I think each of us has their tendencies -- maybe I like to do the music that has more of an accordion style, like trying to do a French song," she says. "I think Jon tends to have a little more of a bluegrass edge. Funk is probably the most eclectic of everybody. But we all have a lot of variation in what we do and like."

One inclination all five members share: a desire and willingness to produce in-the-moment, fully alive music, free of the hyper-polishing and retouching that can blunt a recording's humanity. The band tracked "A Tear in the Eye" with "Hunters' Moon" producer Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie), start to finish, over the course of 10 days, eschewing hemming and hawing for energy and experimentation.

"We just moved quick," Funk says, "and it's really refreshing about this band, to let the real personalities come through and not worry about Auto-Tuning and hyper-punching notes, and, 'Is that completely in tune?' It's rough. It sounds like who we are as real musicians."

As musicians, the members of Black Prairie have been keeping plenty busy beyond working on A Tear in the Eye and with their other bands, too. In early 2012, the band paired with the Oregon Children's Theatre, composing music for the play "The Storm in the Barn." For 2012's Record Store Day in April, they issued a limited-edition 7-inch record featuring collaborations with The Shins' James Mercer and Sallie Ford of Sallie Ford and The Sound Outside.

The latter project launched Black Prairie's ongoing "Singers" EP series, which will feature songwriting team-ups with an array of friendly voices, with new releases coming in natural bursts, as Black Prairie and their co-conspirators' schedules allow. (Releases with Martha Scanlan and Langhorne Slim are already in the works.)

Those free-flowing collaborations just extend the approach the members take with Black Prairie.

"One of the things I appreciate so much about this group is how much it's truly collaborative," Query says. "It's really easy, because everybody trusts each other and is excited about each others' skills and unique superpowers. It's always really exciting -- you never know what's going to happen."

Jon Mooallem

Jon Mooallem is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a writer-at-large for Pop-Up Magazine, the "live magazine" in San Francisco. He's also contributed to This American Life, Radiolab, Wired, The New Yorker and many other magazines and radio shows.

Mooallem's new, critically-acclaimed book is called Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. Wild Ones blends reportage from the frontlines of wildlife conservation with an eccentric cultural history of people and wild animals in America, discovering characters past and present whose passion for animals drove them to act in ways that are sometimes heroic, always idiosyncratic and occasionally absurd. (From Thomas Jefferson's attempt to defend America's honor abroad with a very large moose, to a 1960's-era hippie who lived with a dolphin in a "flooded house," trying to teach the dolphin to speak English.) The New York Times Book Review calls Wild Ones "ambitious and fascinating." Michael Pollan calls Mooallem's book "as funny as it is sad, beautifully observed and written, and wiser about the human condition than anything I've read in a long time."

Black Prairie has released a soundtrack to Mooallem's book, an extended EP titledWild Ones: A Musical Score for the Things That You Might See in Your Head When You Reflect on Certain Characters and Incidents That You Read About in the Book. Before Black Prairie's own set, Mooallem and the band will perform a special, 25-minute collaborative composition, with Mooallem telling a series of stories from Wild Ones and Black Prairie live-orchestrating his narration on stage.

$15

Tickets Available at the Door

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Black Prairie with Jon Mooallem

Sunday, September 15 · 6:30 PM at U Street Music Hall

Tickets Available at the Door