Brian Molnar & the Naked Hearts,
Of the Fall
(Avenue A, 2011)

First of all, let's get this straight: Of the Fall is not a country record, whatever the band's name and the album's cover photo ("hearts" being big in mainstream country music these days, along with guys wearing hats) may lead you to deduce otherwise. Or maybe it's another of the many routes country music could have taken but didn't. Or maybe it's something like a mid- to latter-1960s folk record, when the genre came to be defined as a variety of popular music comprising smart songwriting set to appealingly straightforward melodies.

Well, whatever it is, Of the Fall certainly has its appealingly straightforward melodies, sung in appealingly straightforward fashion by New Yorker Brian Molnar, a harmonica-blowing acoustic guitarist who's written 10 of the 11 songs and co-composed (with R.B. Reitz) the other. The Naked Hearts play country instruments -- electric guitars, lap steel, keyboards, mandolin, drums -- but not as if they were instruments in a honkytonk outfit. In fact, they don't sound remotely Southern.

Molnar's songs tend to the sober and introspective, albeit not irritatingly so. The lyrics are intelligent and insightful without feeling self-consciously poetic, notwithstanding the nod to Walt Whitman in the opening cut, titled "Leaves of Grass." (Gordon Lightfoot also once filched the bard's title, and why not?) If once in a while Molnar's vocals and melodies bring, I swear, Harry Chapin to mind, he avoids the occasional -- yes, well-meaning -- preachiness and histrionics of that late, latter-day folksinger-songwriter. More often, though, Molnar's approach generates a kind of cognitive dissonance; it recalls many artists and none at all. Once that is sorted out, you can start appreciating the refreshingly clear and unadorned singing, the attractive and uncluttered tunes.

Possibly because of its unlabored plainness and consistent lack of pretense, Of the Fall seems a tad odd. This listener kept expecting it to fly off to some needless place so as to declare a necessary claim to fashionableness. It doesn't. It betrays no evidence of being anything other than what it is, which is homespun, beautiful and true.

music review by
Jerome Clark

1 October 2011

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