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Mights Oaks: Howl
by George Graham
(Astralwerks Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/15/2015)
The unexpected commercial success of Mumford & Sons, and the increasing popularity of groups like the Avett Brothers has helped to spawn a new interest in folk-influenced bands on the alternative scene, going beyond the stereotype of the aging Baby Boomer audience for folk-influenced music. Out of that scene a fair number of groups have emerged who also go in for vocal harmonies. A number of them have been sibling and spouse bands, but there are also some groups that defy one’s expectations of a contemporary, post-alternative folk-influenced group. This week, we have a trio whose background is hardly what one would expect, and they have just released a very impressive debut full-length album. The band is Mighty Oaks, and their CD is called Howl.
What makes Mighty Oaks distinctive is that they are based in Berlin, Germany, and their members are all from different countries, singing music that sounds very American. The group’s lead vocalist and main songwriter is American, Ian Hooper originally from the Pacific Northwest, who moved to Hamburg, Germany after college. There he met British bassist Craig Saunders and they began to collaborate working together as singer-songwriters. Some months later, they met Italian guitarist Claudio Donzelli at an acoustic music festival. They stayed in contact and eventually Donzelli became part of the threesome. They worked on original songs and released a home-made EP, recorded in Donzelli’s apartment in 2011. They followed with another EP in 2012 before being picked up by the German division of Universal Music which last year released Howl in Europe. The album rose to #10 on the German and Swiss pop charts. Their song Brother had pop chart success as a single, which interestingly is based on Ian Hooper’s experience with his best friend growing up in Washington State.
So with that European success, the full album has now been released here in the US, where the music would seem to be most at home. Howl turns out to be a delight, an excellent folky record that belies its international makeup, sounding like a bunch of All-American folkies who have been singing and playing together for ages. Interestingly, in an interview, Hooper says that the group’s camaraderie springs from the fact that all three members are living far from home and the friends they grew up with. So now they have each other and their musical relationship in part springs from that isolation.
Like many of the groups in the neo-folkie post-alternative scene, Mighty Oaks bring in acoustic instruments like banjo and mandolin, but they also often kick in with rockier parts bearing some familiar alternative rock ingredients. There is generally some light percussion. Most of the music on the CD was performed by the members of the band, though there are a couple of added drummers.
Howl opens with their European hit song Brother, which is about Ian Hooper’s boyhood friend in Washington State. After a more intimate opening section <<>> the band kicks in with some 2010s pop sounds. <<>>
Seven Days is a tasteful, melodic song about being able to spend only a limited amount of time with a special someone. The group’s vocal harmonies straddle the classic folk approach with more contemporary pop styles. <<>>
Somewhat more philosophical lyrically, and contemplative in sound is a song called When I Dream, I See. It’s a nice blend of the rustic banjo with a more produced sound. <<>>
One of the more appealing songs is Shells a more laid-back, largely acoustic tune, which also spotlights the Mighty Oaks’ tight vocal harmonies. <<>>
You Saved My Soul is a nicely done and optimistic love song which has echoes of the Mumford & Sons style in the way Might Oaks deftly build the song’s momentum <<>> toward its energetic rocky climax. <<>>
Getting more philosophical or theological in its lyrical directions is a composition called The Golden Road. It’s a track on which the band keeps the energy level up more. <<>>
While Mighty Oaks feature a lot of contemporary influences, one can definitely hear some echoes of Crosby, Stills and Nash on the track called Courtyard in Berlin. These guys definitely have the right idea. <<>>
The album ends with its melancholy-sounding title track Howl a reference to disappearing wolves and hence a reflection on the state of the world. <<>>
Howl the new debut full-length album from the German-based international trio Mighty Oaks is a great example of the revival of folk-influenced groups with vocal harmonies in what I suppose could be called post-alternative music. Thanks to the success of Mumford & Sons, the door has been opened for a bunch of fine new bands who write honest articulate music, sing real vocal harmonies and don’t drift far from acoustic instrumentation, while still absorbing some alternative rock influences. On this review series we have featured such groups including the Currys, Barnaby Bright and Good Old War. It’s almost the diametric opposite and antidote to the commercial-music scene’s totally artificial, computer-fabricated sounds with robot-generated rhythms and Auto-tuned vocals by video-genic front-persons who probably could not do real vocal harmonies if their lives depended on it. Mighty Oaks are all the more interesting and impressive for their geographical makeup. It almost seems an anomaly that they are making music as good and American-sounding as this.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” The Germans have traditionally had a greater respect for quality audio, and Howl has a clean, open sound with the vocal harmonies blending very well. The CD was mastered in the US through, perhaps for the American release, so the sound was dumbed down with the typical volume compression added to make the album seem louder than it is, and thus rob the listener of some of the music’s dynamic.
It’s nice when contemporary music like this can appeal to a couple of separated generations – the Baby Boomers who remember the folk music days, and the college crowd who go in for groups like Mumford & Sons. Mighty Oaks have created a fine album than can do just that.
(c) Copyright 2015 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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