The amount of groups trying their hand at the burgeoning 60s inspired indie folk genre continues to grow, and as with most genre growth spurts, it isn't exactly for the better. As evidenced by Midlake's latest from a few months back, the results are sadly dull and derivative albums, seemingly more interested to indulge in their own gloomy atmosphere rather than to produce original, interesting songs. While it's rather sad to see this happening to a musical style with such excellent potential, it just makes it all the more special to find a new artist who can do it well. Mountain Man, a group formed barely over a year ago, has released a rather impressive debut entitled Made the Harbor. While certainly not the most unique stab at folk music, the three ladies who make up Mountain Man (Amelia Meath, Molly Sarle, and Alex Sauser-Monnig) make excellent use of very spare arrangements (basically the trio harmonizing over Sauser-Monnig's guitar), and have some of the best folk vocal harmonies this side of Simon & Garfunkel.
These vocal harmonies are ultimately what makes Made the Harbor such a strong set of songs. Everything is centered around them here, which only makes sense, what with the three female voices compare and contrast so beautifully; they make up the atmosphere nearly all on their own. In fact, there are a number of a cappella here,, which further illustrate this point. On Mouthwings, their combined vocals are so lush that it's not difficult to forget that there's no guitar backing them, and How'm I Doin' shows a bit of diversity from the trio, almost resembling a 50s girl group bubblegum pop hit. And while they sound very, very pretty, the real strength is in how the melodies themselves are written; the note progressions produce hooks that could rival Joanna Newsom (Animal Tracks) or even Sarah Mclaughlin (Sewee Sewee).
Honeybee, Babylon, and River, the last three tracks on the album, are also entirely vocal, and serve as yet another testament of just how good they are with using their voices as instruments. The layering and intertwining of each woman's voice is done masterfully, giving each of the tracks a very large, looming atmosphere. Sauser-Monnig's guitar playing doesn't exactly boast any sort of technical prowess, but this actually works to the group's advantage, given that even that minimal accompaniment for the vocals is intended to be downplayed as well. The only thing about Made the Harbor is that with as nice as it sounds, the tracks have a tendency to bleed into one another. The fact that so many of the songs are so incredibly short doesn't help this either, as many tracks feel more like interludes than much else. A minor gripe though, really, as Mountain Man accomplishes a startling amount with very, very little.
Although Made the Harbor isn't really going to top any year-end lists, it has some undeniably great moments, and still stands head and shoulders above most of the indie folk coming out at the moment, signaling the arrival of a new talent. Hopefully the trio will be able to broaden their sound in the years to come; it's not inconceivable, particularly when you take into consideration that they've barely been making music together for a year.