Music News & Reviews

Lone Bellow on upswing, an album looming

There is nothing subtle about this scene from the Lone Bellow story. Ten years ago in Georgia, singer and main songwriter Zach Williams sprinted into a field after a horse his wife had been riding came home alone.

When he found his wife, her back was broken. At the hospital, the prognosis was grim. It was likely she’d live her life paralyzed from the neck down. “Her zeal to be alive shook me to the core,” Williams wrote earlier this month on his band’s Facebook page.

Small acts of kindness and courage kept them going from one minute to the next. Little things, subtle things, that meant the world. Williams first began to write songs in those days and nights, and when his wife beat the odds and recovered, they moved to New York. He started a band. That band released an album. That album led to success. He wrote that Facebook post as a celebration of the decade past.

“I feel like beautiful pictures are painted with the darkest colors, and the lightest colors,” Williams said recently by phone. Similar brush strokes brought the Lone Bellow’s 2013 self-titled debut to life.

As the band arrives at Harlow’s Tuesday (it’s also playing Grass Valley’s Center for the Arts Oct. 4), it is sitting on the mostly finished follow-up. “We recorded 19 songs, and everybody in the band is passionately fighting for which songs will make the final 13,” Williams said. “A fight to the death.”

As such endeavors tend to be. Presumably, however, the Lone Bellow will still hit town with Williams playing guitar and singing, Kanene Pipkin on mandolin and vocals, and Brian Elmquist on guitar and vocals. The three got together in Brooklyn and built three-part harmonies around throwback ballads and front-porch stomps packed with turmoil and hope and beauty.

They did this as Mumford & Sons were making folk-pop a thing you could play in basketball arenas and take to festival headlining slots. So the Lone Bellow’s timing was impeccable (“You’ll know this band in 2013,” NPR correctly predicted), and songs like “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold” and “Two Sides of Lonely” hit a popular sweet spot.

If the next question is whether or not the new record, which Williams expects will be released in January, takes any kind of a sonic turn, the answer is: “We made it at this place called Dreamland,” Williams said, “off this old, forgotten railway outside of Woodstock, N.Y.”

If you visit there, you’ll find a 19th century church where Herbie Hancock, Ron Sexsmith and jazz great Jack DeJohnette have recorded. And, as Dreamland’s website notes, you’re only 100 miles from New York, so everything you need is a short drive away.

Having hooked up with Charlie Peacock, who produced the Civil Wars’ 2011 debut “Barton Hollow,” on the first record, this time the Lone Bellow headed into the studio with the National’s Aaron Dessner.

“This was the first record we’ve made not having jobs when we made the record,” Williams said. “So we had a lot more time to do some experimenting with sounds.”

The harmonies, already so warm, were recorded with all three in the church sanctuary, and with additional microphones hanging 30 feet above them from the ceiling. They called on New York’s proximity to bring in string, woodwind and brass players. Dessner’s brother Bryce managed those arrangements.

Williams thinks the album will be called “Then Came the Morning,” which will also be the first single. That single will likely be out in early October, and there will be new songs in the set when the band gets to Harlow’s.

The album, Williams said, “has a lot of family lore in it, and a kind of Southern Gothic vibe. And there are some dreadfully personal songs that I haven’t conjured up the guts to even sing in front of people. It’s moments of pure celebration and gratitude, and moments that are the opposite of that.”

Williams offered the folks of LaFayette, Ga., as an example. Tucked into the mountains of Northwest Georgia, LaFayette is home to almost 7,000. “They have these incredible, beautiful stories,” Williams said. But you’re not going to hear them until you take the time to get to know the people, and appreciate the day-to-day moments that make up a life.

“They live subtle lives,” Williams said. “And I feel like that’s kind of the glue of the record: the celebration of the mundane.”

Which, as he and his family can testify to, isn’t boring. It’s inspiring.

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