AmericanA to Z – Mandolin Orange

M is for Mandolin Orange, who are Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz. This duo’s fresh blend of acoustic bluegrass, folk and country to tell stories of profound feelings, frequently around love and loss, pulls together many of the strands that define Americana.

Back in 2009 Marlin and Frantz met at a music jam in their home state of North Carolina, since when they have released six records, which combined with their relentless touring, have attracted fans from around the world.

Over the years songwriter Marlin and multi-instrumentalist Frantz have developed their initial sparse sound into a much fuller vibe without losing any of their hallmark easy going, intimate delicacy. Sonically, what sets them apart is their interweaving, string arrangements and haunting harmonies. Lyrically, they can be earnest but their storytelling is so engaging.

It is not a stretch to compare Mandolin Orange with Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris or Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. Marlin and Frantz draw on a broad sweep of influences; musically the mandolin of Tim O’Brien and Neil Young’s solo acoustic and for songwriting John Hartford, Paul Simon and Eddie Vedder are in the mix. Underpinning all that is the firm foundations in the Appalachian traditions of their childhood. In an interview several years ago Frantz described their composition as 50% singer-songwriter, 18% bluegrass, 17% old-time, 10% country and 5% rock. That looks very precise although she admitted the proportions do change, but it is not a bad start.

Mandolin Orange’s first two records were definitely more than 50% singer/songwriter as each had a good pinch of folk sprinkled in. Their second release was a double EP that gave prominence to their bluegrass interpretations. Having self-produced these first two they signed to Yep Roc for ‘This Side Of Jordan’, a record that went back to their Appalachian roots containing gospel, folk and even some country-rock. Marlin wrote while recovering from a broken pelvis so the songs  frequently focus on the human condition, particularly around that balance between tragedy and hope.

Two years later ‘Such Jubilee’ felt like a switch back to the more singer-songwriting territory. The lyrics are heavy-duty, reflecting their sombre and contemplative frame of mind, “It’s a hundred thousand miles of lonely track/ Holding back tomorrow/ Someday I’ll hop along and ride it home”.

Then like a blossoming plant Mandolin Orange add colour and dimension with ‘Blindfaller’, widely considered their best yet. By including their touring band Marin and Frantz give the new songs further layers without compromising the songwriting focus. They even let rip with the honky tonking ‘Hard Travellin’.

Last year’s ‘Tides of a Teardrop’ is a muse on loss and letting go as Marlin comes to terms with his mother’s passing when he was 18. While the stream of consciousness remains there is such space between his emotions, like a long exhalation.

Going through Mandolin Orange’s discography like this is not a sign of obsessiveness (honest) but to demonstrate the sweep of their styles, all unified by their solid old-time acoustic bluegrass fundamentals. In a nutshell, Mandolin Orange offer a lot of Americana.

The canon:
Quiet Little Room (2010)
Haste Make / Hard Hearted Stranger (2011)
This Side of Jordan (2013)
Such Jubilee (2015)
Blindfaller (2016)
Tears of a Teardrop (2019)

Key Releases; Albums,This Side of Jordan’ for duo and Blindfaller’ for band or combine both with this!

Author: Lyndon Bolton

Writing about americana, country, blues, folk and all stops in between

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