Kindness as an act of rebellion. North Carolinian indie folksters have a mission statement of sorts: “Like America itself, kindness is an ideal, a thing we must strive to attain even as we know we’ll always fall a little short. But kindness is not synonymous with passivity, with apathy or complacency. Kindness is active, deliberate and self-assured.” If ever there was a time when a slew of record releases seem to emphasise that the personal is political – whether that be recent albums by Courtney Marie Andrews, and especially the latest Birds of Chicago album, ‘Life in Wartime’ – then that time is now. And the latest recording by River Whyless is no different, raising questions about privilege, economic inequality, class, and the rise of populism – in sometimes deft and original ways.
This album stresses the importance of having a “constructive conversation” “enriched by our collective differences,” and it’s in the collective differences of the musicians and songwriters in River Whyless that the real strengths of this album reside. It’s very much a group effort, with individual band members taking the lead on different songs throughout the record, making for a highly varied musical palette, whether that be the synth-led burble of ‘All of My Friends,’ the joyous sounding ‘Van Dyke Brown’ (whose melody and percussion wouldn’t sound out of place on Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland),’ or the more straightforwardly indie-pop of ‘Born in the Right Country.’ The latter is probably the most successful song on the album with its soaring chorus, while lyrically it pull no punches either, underlining the illusory nature of the American dream, while emphasising that those white Americans who drew first dibs in the life lottery will go to serious lengths to ensure their privileged status: “Can you really blame me / Built on a system where some must fail / So that you can break through / If you’ve got the right skin.”
‘New Beliefs’ is no less hard hitting in its lyrical content either, more guitar-led in nature, although the artful use of violin takes the track into more diverse territory. No less appealing is the acoustic folk of ‘War is Kind.’
The eclectic nature of the music on offer and the organic way in which it appears to have evolved, means that if not everything succeeds over the course of 11 songs, then this is still a worthy effort that yields rewards with repeated listening.