Folk-rock sextet Blind Pilot broach dark times on their third long player. The group's primary songwriter Israel Nebeker wrote And Then Like Lions over three years following the death of his father and the break down of a 13-year-relationship. In most hands that would spell a record of maudlin introspection, but Nebeker has a canny knack of turning darkness into bright vignettes that uplift. The resulting record is bigger and bolder than their previous efforts, and the writing and delivery feels more assured. What they have sacrificed is some of the nuance of the former recordings. They take a straight path that brings them dangerously close to riskless safe places.
One of Nebeker’s defining strengths is the ability to consistently craft the sweetest melodies, and that skill is used to the utmost on And Then Like Lions. ‘Which Side am I On’ is an aching ditty fitted out with hushed harmonies that laments loss and its unshakable impact. Nebeker mourns, “I’ve lost and I’ve lost and that won’t let go of me” and fears “it’s gonna burn me with its touch.” ‘Umpqua Rushing’ is a fine opener. It’s melody, almost unbearably, yearns for a different outcome of a failed relationship, as Nebeker croons “I tried to hold you/I tired everything but running.” At their best Blind Pilot perfectly encapsulate these complex and confusing emotions in honeyed tunes that err just on the right side of saccharine.
One fresh element the band introduce on this record is a tendency towards a more country-based sound. ‘Packed Powder’ finds Nebeker employing his best country tinged timbre, and the brushed drum rhythms of ‘Don’t Doubt’ lilts towards the genre also. ‘Seeing is Believing’ is a gentle waltz and tribute to his father. It’s a surprisingly elevated number that, rather than plough sorrowful feelings, honours the life in question.
The band are very much embracing classic songwriting with this record, and in that sense there is much to commend it. But, occasionally the album could do with veering off piste for the sake of variety. It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish one track from another as the polished production and traditional musicality wash over you. ‘Don’t Doubt’ for example is a perfectly decent slice of folk-rock, but it fails to leave and lasting impression. Sometimes Blind Pilot just fail to excite.
That said it’s difficult to criticise songwriting as heartfelt and well crafted as this. But you often yearn of the idiosyncratic charm of the single that really kicked off their career, ‘Three Rounds and a Sound’. There are glimpses of eccentric musical flourishes, but they are rare. What the band have created is a record of mature emotionality. The song are bruised with loss, but ultimately it’s a cathartic record where Nebeker attempts to vanquish his demons. Whether or not he was successful personally, he triumphs in absorbing the listener in his experiences, even if he doesn’t excite them. It’s possible it just too hard to produce a record of straight classic songwriting in an era that has heard it all, but Blind Pilot make a good stab at it.
6Bekki Bemrose 's Score