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Lean in to Mandolin Orange’s new album, “Blindfaller,” and it’s bound to happen. You’ll suddenly pick up on the power and devastation lurking in its quietude, the doom hiding beneath its unvarnished beauty. You’ll hear the way it magnifies the intimacy at the heart of the North Carolina duo’s music, as if they created their own musical language as they recorded it.
Due Sept. 30 on Yep Roc Records, “Blindfaller” builds on the acclaim of Mandolin Orange’s breakthrough debut on the label, 2013’s “This Side of Jordan,” and its follow-up, last year’s “Such Jubilee.”Since then they’ve steadily picked up speed and fans they’ve earned from long stretches on the road, including appearances at Newport Folk Festival, Austin City Limits Fest, and Telluride Bluegrass. It’s been an auspicious journey for a pair who casually met at a bluegrass jam session in 2009.
“When we finished ‘Such Jubilee,’ I started writing these songs with a different goal in mind. I thought about how I would write songs for somebody else to record,” Marlin explains. “I ended up with a bunch of songs like that, but we chose ones that I still felt personally connected to.”
Holed up at the Rubber Room studio in Chapel Hill, N.C., with a full band this time around, they laid down the tracks in a week between touring. They’ve always been keen on the notion that drawn-out recording sessions don’t necessarily yield better results. A good song, and just one good take, will always shine through any studio sorcery.
The passage of time, and the regret that often accompanies it, courses through these songs. “When did all the good times turn to hard lines on my face/ And lead me so far from my place right by your side?” Marlin ruminates on “My Blinded Heart.”
In fact, there’s heartache by the numbers on “Blindfaller.” If you didn’t know better, you’d swear “Picking Up Pieces” is a tearjerker George Jones or Willie Nelson sang back in the early 1970s. It’s a Mandolin Orange original, of course, and also a poignant reminder of the economy and grace with which Marlin imbues his songs – say what’s important and scrap the rest.
A country dirge with soulful washes of pedal steel and mandolin, “Wildfire” details the the lingering, present-day devastation of slavery and the Civil War, with Marlin’s voice locking into close harmonies with Frantz on the chorus. “Take This Heart of Gold” opens with perhaps the best classic-country line you’ll hear all year: “Take this heart of gold and melt it down.” (Marlin admits it was inspired by a Tom Waits lyric he misheard.)
But there’s also room for detours. Straight out of a honky tonk, “Hard Travelin’” lets the band shift into overdrive. A freewheeling ode to life on the road, it had been kicking around for a while but never fit on previous releases.
As for the album title, it’s meant to evoke a sense of wonder, of contemplation. A “faller” is someone who fells trees, and in this case that person is blind to his/her own actions and those of the world. The spectral cover photo, by Scott McCormick, is open to interpretation, too: Either those trees are engulfed in flames or sunlight is pouring through them. It’s up to you.
“We wanted different vibes and different intuitions on these tracks,” Marlin says, “and I feel like we really captured that.”
Dori Freeman grew up in a family of bluegrass musicians, raised on a diet of Doc Watson and the Louvin Brothers. But by driving age, she'd cruise around her hometown of Galax, Virginia (pop: 7,042), windows down, breeze riffling her cropped strawberry-blonde hair, and harmonize with the pop melodies of singer- songwriter Teddy Thompson playing on her CD player. “I always thought that our voices sounded nice together," Freeman says in a rough-edged, Appalachian twang. The feeling stuck with her, and at one point, Freeman did something odd for a 22-year-old single mom working at the family's frame shop: she recorded a video of herself playing Thompson's “Everybody Move It” and sent it to him via Facebook, with a note saying how much she liked to sing with him.
Three days later, he wrote back.
Two years after that, The New York Times named Freeman’s self-titled debut— an honest and achingly beautiful collection of folk and country songs produced by Thompson and recorded in three days—one of the best albums of 2016. “The purity of Dori Freeman’s voice and the directness of her songwriting reflect not only her Appalachian hometown,” wrote the Times’ Jon Pareles in his initial review, “but also a determined classicism, a rejection of the ways modern country punches itself up for radio and arenas.”
So far, Freeman's success owes as little to modern country as it does the standard career-building tools of young artists. No brand partnerships, an Instagram account that’s much more personal than promotional, though, yes, she’s still on Facebook. An unnervingly grounded 26, she states her goal as “try to make good music and hope people listen to it" with a sure finality. “I just hope that I can sustain a career doing this for the rest of my life."
She definitely has good role models. Her dad and grandfather are respected bluegrass musicians, and growing up she traveled with them to fiddle conventions and folk festivals. “I spent a lot of nights at campsites as a kid, watching them and their friends take turns picking songs and jamming for a few hours,” Freeman recalls. Finally at 15 she picked up the guitar—specifically a small body guitar of her dad’s that had “this ridiculous Hawaiian print and wasn’t really meant to be played”—because she loved singing in the school chorus and wanted to be able to back herself up. Her first gig was with her dad, performing Doc and Rosa Lee Watson’s “Your Long Journey.”
Freeman started writing her own songs—taking inspiration from Rufus Wainwright and Dolly Parton—after dropping out of Virginia Tech University and moving back home. By 22 she had a daugher, Osa, as well as plenty of heartbreak to serve as lyric fodder. “I pretty much always have a little baseline of melancholy going on,” she admits. Osa, surprisingly, ended up being the push Freeman needed to seriously pursue music. “Some people find it odd that you would not have much of a career and then have a baby and then the baby be the catalyst for wanting to have a career, but that’s what happened,” she says. “She changed my life and made me realize that if I wanted to do music, I had to do it full force and be confident about it. I had to do it for her, but also for me.”
While Freeman’s debut hewed to love-gone-wrong songs, her new album, the more measured and maturely crafted Letters Never Read—again produced by Thompson and featuring guest appearances by his dad Richard Thompson, as well as Aiofe O’Donovan and Kacy & Clayton —has a distinctly rosier outlook. “I always want to put out something that’s a genuine representation of what I was going through at that point in my life,” says Freeman, noting that getting married last year to fellow musician Nick Falk (who plays drums and banjo on the album) made writing love songs much easier. She laughs. “I’m happier now in general.”
Though her melancholy baseline's holding strong. “Cold Waves” offers strikingly palpable telegrams from within depression (“Cold Waves, blue haze, that’s what it feels like, on the dark days,” she lilts over guitar and vibraphone) and her favorite song, “Lovers on the Run” is about being left behind: “I’ve spent many an hour writing letters never read/I’ve stared away the ceilings of a thousand lonesome beds.” The album title, Letters Never Read, comes from the idea of “writing songs about people in your past and maybe them never knowing that it’s about them,” she explains, “kind of like a letter never being read.”
Honesty—in both writing and performance—seems almost reflexive in Freeman's case. “I don’t try to overdo any songs or put on big theatrics. I think simple is better.” It’s a reflection of her Appalachian roots, which she’s immensely proud of. “I think people have an idea of what this area in the country is like, and what that music sounds like, and it’s not necessarily a really nice picture that’s been painted. I want to break that stereotype down,” she says. “I’m proud of where I’m from. And I want to bring that kind of music to a new audience in a different way.”