Mountain Man play a brand of stripped-down, back porch folk that has slowly seeped its dreamy, spacious sound across the iPods of indie kids everywhere over the past 10 years or so. Full of tape-hiss echoes, minimal instrumentation and other-room vocals, the trio of three women that make up Mountain Man (three women = one “mountain man”?) have a penchant for what the bearded-kids want, no matter if they’re sporting flannel in Portland, Ore. or riding a fixed-gear bike down Lorimer Street. Not that this nostalgic knack for the days of campfire songs, ax-wielding lumberjacks, and bootleg liquor lacks its share of gems when sifting through the musical dustpan of gold. However, it’s a tough line (or should I say “wooden log”) to walk between genre-bending revivalists and the bow-tie-wearing, hat-cocked-at-a-roughish-tilt imitators of crackling 78s. It’s a line that Mountain Man, for better and worse, attempts to walk fully and unabashedly with proud posture.
In the game of folk-cred, the members of Mountain Man immediately get one paisley-print point in their favor for forming the band while away at college in Vermont. After all, there is something to be said about three women creating this kind of music in a place known as the Green Mountain State opposed to someplace like Los Angeles. Recorded in an old ice-cream parlor from the turn of the century, all of Made The Harbor is preciously lo-fi to the point that an un-discriminating ear could easily mistake the album as something recorded many years prior and recently re-discovered in an antique shop among the dollar LPs.
Much like the early work of Iron & Wine, Laura Gibson and even some Gillian Welch, this is done deliberately, and the trio sticks with all the throat-clearing, false-starts and high-pitched fuzz throughout Made the Harbor to set the mood and demand intimacy. On “Soft Skin” the atmosphere works perfectly as Molly Erin Sarle takes the vocals and sensually asks, “I’ve got soft skin/ Are you gonna let me in?” Over nothing but a muffled acoustic-guitar and the accompanying harmonies from the other two of the trio, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Randall Meath, “Soft Skin” perfectly exemplifies Mountain Man’s strength in creating simple infectious harmonies. Similar results occur on “Animal Tracks” — a recount with their best back-woods Chan Marshall impression of a mid-summer jaunt through a forest ending in the “bright baby eyes of a chickadee.”
As richly these tracks are rooted in Americana and impressively pulled-off by the trio, they also aren’t that dissimilar from the rest of the album. Made the Harbor never really goes awry, but it never really does anything different, either. Every song is made up of the exact same instrumentation and schemes. Even the song titles carry the tired and all-too familiar simplistic themes of the natural world: “Buffalo,” “White Heron,” “Honeybee,” “River.” (Are we reading a children’s picture book?) This simplicity that comes to wholly characterize Made The Harbor grows quickly dull.
The members of Mountain Man display the music capacity for recreating the antiquated music of their American roots, but very little of it stands out among their contemporaries who have already explored, recorded and moved on into new territories from such subject matter and sound. Indeed, there is promising stuff on the trio’s debut. However, the three probably need to look past the days of butter churners and ankle-length skirts before they can record something truly poignant and remarkable.