Watchhouse — self titled
Established bands changing their names is an almost non-existent occurrence. Scan down an “AFKA” list, and you’ll encounter a bunch of haphazardly-named groups that made smarter choices before recording their first proper album. Earlier this year, well-known North Carolina folk-ish band North Mandolin Orange announced a new moniker. Watchhouse, named after songwriter Andrew Marlin’s “place of childhood solace,” where he’d go to enjoy his burgeoning love of music, continues the group’s gentle approach to storytelling, and their self-titled re-debut still prominently features the guitar/fiddle/mandolin blend and sweet harmonies that have captured stages both intimate and grand over the past decade.
The period of time between Mandolin Orange’s previous/last album and today has, in fact, been an era of big change for Marlin and band co-founder (and wife) Emily Frantz. 2019’s Tides of a Teardrop was largely about the death of Marlin’s mother. Shortly before that, the pair had become parents. Then, of course, the pandemic, which forced everyone off the road and into their own small worlds. So, a rebirth of sorts seems entirely natural. And, on Watchhouse, that awakening immediately leads the band, and the listener, back out onto the road so recently abandoned. “Wondrous Love” imagines a time that seems so close to our grasp – “I think of all the traveling that I’ve done/I think of all the traveling I could do.” Over layers of guitar and Frantz’s fiddle, Marlin is in a forgiving mood – “Got no time to think of who done what” – and places an immense amount of faith in the folks he’ll encounter along the way – “Someday the stars will align/And everybody watching will turn to one another/And be kind.”
With a new identity comes a look at new-world problems. “Better Way” features an urgency in Marlin’s mandolin and Frantz’s and bandmate Josh Oliver’s acoustic guitars as the song addresses our very public meanness – “You found you had a voice/And the world stopped to listen/But you had nothing good to say.” The tune features a lengthy instrumental coda, perhaps giving us a little time to stop out-shouting each other and think. And “Beautiful Flowers” follows the technological development of the automobile and how our dependence on it has changed our very planet – “The summertime blues/Are burning red hot/Red hotter than they’ve ever been.”
As big as that topic might be, though. “Beautiful Flowers” began in the small moments that Watchhouse does best. The song’s origin lies in Marlin hitting something as seemingly insignificant as a butterfly with his car – “You flutter on by in a flash of color/And you’re gone.” From that tiny interaction, the song, with Frantz’s voice in the lead, slowly churns toward a conclusion with more questions than answers – “And the more I see the less I know” “Lonely Love Affair” takes on the smallest, most intimate interaction of all – a new parent scared to death of raising a child in this world. Fronted by Marlin and featuring Frantz’s most gorgeous fiddle work on the record, the pair sings of being surrounded by “the ghosts of my loved ones” and the almost claustrophobic fear some parents feel – “I can’t tell you just how it feels/To see her lying there/Stealing all the air I’ve got.” Hyper awareness of the world’s dangers is balanced by a self-described “mellowing out” until Marlin settles on an approach to fatherhood that suits him – “I stand like a watchman/With a weapon of care.” In a sharply divided world where even the rightest of answers seems wrong to someone, it’s the final, mantra-like line of “Beautiful Flowers” that seems like (short of changing our own identity) the best outlook on life right about now – “We keep on rolling on.”
Song That I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Upside Down” – Frantz takes the lead, and there’s some subtle slide work from Oliver, but with the faster tempo toward the end, this one kinda rocks.
Watchhouse was produced by Josh Kaufman and Andrew Marlin and engineered, mixed and mastered by D. James Goodwin. All songs were written by Marlin. Watchhouse is Marlin (vocals, electric guitars, mandolin, acoustic guitars), Emily Frantz (vocals, fiddle, acoustic guitar), Josh Oliver (acoustic guitars, electric guitars, vocals, Wurlitzer electric piano), Clint Mullican (upright bass, electric bass, Arco bass) and Joe Westerlund (drums, congas, percussion). Additional musicians on the album include Kaufman (organ, percussion, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, harmonicas) and Dave Nelson (trombones, trumpets).
Go here to order Watchhouse (out on August 13): https://kf-merch.com/collections/watchhouse
Check out tour dates on the band’s website: https://watchhouseband.com/