These three girls may appear the female counterpart to Robin Pecknold and Co. with their Appalachian revivalist vocals and hauntingly authentic folk, but there is something much stronger behind their whisperings.
Mountain Man is comprised of Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Randall Meath who, having met at Bennington College, Vermont, began a transformation into the sound that they describe as “a creature growing from [their] mouths”. Upon hearing Molly playing what was later to become “Dog Song”, Amelia learnt it and then in turn taught it to Alex like some new fangled campfire Chinese whispers.
Many of the songs found on Made the Harbor follow the footsteps of these beginnings, with lyrics being repeated over one another in the style of a round, as in “Babylon”, or possessing a characteristic, conversational dialogue that flits back and forth between their three voices: the reworking of Don Redman’s “How’m I Doin’?” is a prime example.
Recalling back porch storytelling over a glass of homemade lemonade, their songs have the feeling of dusty old-timers, but when you listen in closely they camouflage their often current day contemplations of lie ins on the couch, mopping up a quart of spilt milk and sexual exploration; in woody, wholesome harmonies.
With half the tracks on the album unaccompanied, harmonised vocals, it goes without saying that this is clearly the selling point, and most engaging feature of the record. In fact this is the record. Even when there is guitar accompaniment we almost must remind ourselves of its presence, as if it were some auditory trick, so entranced were we by the voices. Hypnotically sublime these intertwine and layer over one another creating a tender security and almost childlike worldly naivety. Seeing their surroundings at times as through the “bright baby eyes of [the] chickadee” described in “Animal Tracks”, they sing of hot summer days, finding happiness and tranquillity in the simplistic and natural.
It would be wrong to denote the album’s collection of songs of feather-light vocals, drawing on all that is effeminate and natural as merely a collection of pretty little ditties. While their whimsical and woozy vocals do draw on both nature and her mother, it is in praise of the strength of these entities, “wak[ing] up…covered in milky sweat and grey, grey cashmere“, rather than adhering to gender conventions.
The album is a celebration of womanhood, and while as a whole it offers a marriage between Joni Mitchell’s love found/love lost recollections, and the bluegrass drawl of Gillian Welch as she channels the rebellious woman, bringing her to the foreground in her survival murder ballads, Mountain Man present femininity and female sexuality as strong “screaming so loud/staring so proud“. Its subtle imagery shouts out about female independence, in “Soft Skin” this is most noticeable: “We shake and fall from the wall to the hard, hard floor… Can’t you understand I’m trying to be a good woman? Let me go, let me go“.
There’s a lot we can unearth from the woven vocals of these three and the lone guitar that occasionally joins them. Whether you wish to search deeper into their metaphorical and literal references is up to you, the listener. We can take their vocals as they are, or jump into the bracken of the surroundings they depict to find a nugget of meaning and truth. Although ultimately, as a record, whose calming timbres you can easily lose yourself in, mistaking a minute for 30 as the tracks ebb and flow over one another, it is one that ekes out meaning slowly over time regardless.
Sadly, no matter how much fuzz and foot stomping, laughter, breathing, whispering, clicking and sighing the recording captures, it lacks the magical, spiritual vibrancy of the intimate live setting where the three excel. That said, its ability to transport you to a timeless Southern State amongst rivers, coyotes, forests, blue skies, dust and dirt, where the arresting vocals will do doubt stop you in your tracks; will suffice until they hit the road again.