I first heard the singer-songwriter duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz in a collaboration video with Peter Rowan and Tibetan vocalist Yungchen Lhamo at last year’s Merlefest. (Their performance of Rowan’s I’m Calling You still remains as my favorite example of the “High Lonesome Sound” in music today.) This Side of Jordan is their latest release (until the upcoming Such Jubilee, expected May of 2015), and the North Carolina groups first on the Yep Roc Record label.
Opening with House of Stone, the album begins like a new day, with Frantz’s slow fiddle stretching into Marlin’s first line of vocals. Frantz joins in on the second verse, establishing a subtle, yet powerful vocal pattern of two-part harmony that continues throughout the rest of the album. With the harmony comes further texturing, as the rest of the instruments (bass, soft drums, slide guitar) seem to wake up and join in. Together, the instrumentation and vocals emphasize the repetition of the verse structure, a hallmark of Marlin’s songwriting style.
Also introduced from the get-go is Marlin’s unique blend of spiritual and secular, with a heavy dose of Christian imagery applied to all sorts of non-religious (but very spiritual!) topics and themes. House of Stone alludes to the peace of earthly dwellings over the “mansion of gold” of life after next. This is a theme that pervades This Side of Jordan. It is, in fact, partially what the album’s title refers to, the earthly side of river separating this life from the next.
With this in mind, it’s not too surprising that a close brush with death had its part to play in the album’s creation; many of the songs on the album were written following Marlin’s fall from a 10-foot dam in 2001 (Wallen). The tracks on This Side of Jordan are a product of Marlin’s recovery, delving into topics of life, death, and (the inevitable bluegrass staple) the passage of time, with a surprising degree of hope and optimism. From an interview with Paul Wallen of Engine 145:
“It’s easy to see the dark side of life and that’s real easy to write about,” says Marlin. “I think that’s why so many amazing songs are really sad. But sometimes you have to find your way through the dark matter.”
Paralleling this physical recovery is a spiritual recovery. Evident in the album’s theme is a sense of coming to terms with the inevitability of death while finding fulfillment in the joys of life. A few of the songs reflect specifically on the passing of Marlin’s parents, including the album’s final track, Until the Last Light Fades, and Turtle Dove and The Crow.
“We shared a line etched in stone between two years
and I aim to pack my grave someday and go see her”
Turtle Dove and The Crow describes a man’s journey to visit his wife in heaven, crossing the River Jordan and ascending Jacob’s ladder to paradise, and stands as another example of Marlin’s spiritual-yet-nonreligious songwriting. As the singer makes his way to visit his lost lover, he reflects on the paradise that was the mysterious love they shared rather than the death of his wife.
Frantz’s vocals that seem to whisper just over Marlin’s lead in combination with the lyrics themselves, bring to mind the story of Orpheus and his journey over the Styx and back to retrieve his lost love. Unlike the doomed lyre player, Mandolin Orange is undeniably optimistic, with Frantz’s playful fiddle, and the soft, driving drums vaguely reminiscent of a train ride or a sunny road trip out west.
The titular river Jordan winds through the tightly woven soundscape of human trials and tribulations, stringing each song together by the theme of salvation in a difficult world. The many references to rivers, Calvary, and the unrelenting flow of time tie this album together, making it so much more than just a collection of songs.
Take the pairing of track seven (The Doorman, my personal favorite) and track eight (Morphine Girl). Frantz’s haunting vocals blend the character of the doorman (or ferryman) to heaven with a friend’s experience with drug addiction (Wallen). The haunting vocals and scuttling mandolin really make the song, with Frantz’s delivery drawing you in before leaving you to hang on each word (Listen at 2:00 and 3:40 as she just refuses to finish the word “remember”).
“Oh where are my friends
The Doorman cried
I held out my hand
That’s all I remember…”
Here, the river also represents the lines we are dared to cross and the price of actually crossing them. This crossing leads to another song about addiction, Morphine Girl, and ties nicely one song to the next.
Though the instrumentation is far from what one might consider “traditional” (drums and organ, and electric guitar, oh my!) it is hard to disown the group from their musical heritage of bluegrass and roots music. The artful use of drums and electric instrumentation on This Side of Jordan does not leave one with a sense of departure from tradition, but rather an embrace of folk and acoustic ideals.
Morphine Girl is perhaps the best example of this nontraditionally traditional sound on the entire album. With more of the clever imagery and word play characteristic of Mandolin Orange (are they singing about drugs or music when they sing “we are the ones that hang by the needle/Stuck in a groove cut by your hand?”), Marlin and Frantz seamlessly incorporate the electric guitar, organ, and rolling drums into their deceptively acoustic sound.
Continuing the motif of Christian imagery, Hey Adam tackles the political and religious opponents of gay marriage in North Carolina and elsewhere through use of the story of Adam and Eve.
Our secret’s safe
But I hope the world will learn
Go tend to Eve in the garden, crying,
But pay attention to these words:
Our Father loves you all ways”
The joyful fiddle refrain makes clear the powerful message of love and acceptance while reminding us this shouldn’t have to be seen as a politically pointed song.
One of Marlin’s songwriting strengths is his ability to take classic country and folk subjects and give them a new spin. With his clever take on the classic topics of unrequited love and heartbreak Mandolin Orange is able to steer clear of the clichés that many roots musicians fall prey to. Songs like There was a Time and Black Widow remain true to the genre, while exploring new perspectives. Far from gimmicky, Marlin’s lyrics and Frantz’s strong accompaniment showcase powerful depth of emotion (Black Widow made me tear up while waiting for my plane at LAX).
“I remember it well, the night we fell
She was looking back and I went running after
What a time it was, speaking of, where does time go?
It’s tangled up in her ways”
Through tightly woven thematic threads, powerful vocals, and thoughtful instrumentation, This Side of Jordan showcases the depth of Mandolin Orange’s skill and maturity. Like many of the lyrics say on this album, I too find This Side of Jordan to be its own sort of paradise. I look forward to the release of their next album in May.
Wallen, Paul. “Mandolin Orange Finds Their Way This Side of Jordan.” Engine 145. N.p., 2 Dec. 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
Did you catch all the links?
I tried to showcase a few different versions of each song.
Some of the live tracks are real gems!