What do you do after you’ve laid yourself bare? Rivers Cuomo dropped out of the scene for nearly half a decade after letting the world in on his Asiatic obsessions. Jeff Mangum disappeared entirely after sculpting an album from the raw matter of his brain. Rolf Klausener, though — frontman for Ottawa, Ontario’s the Acorn — seems positively thrilled to have gotten it all of his chest. The “it” in question is the tragic, uplifting, and near-spiritual story of Klausener’s Honduran-born mother, which formed the lyrical and atmospheric basis for 2007’s Glory Hope Mountain. On that album, Klausener came off as a backwoods Sufjan Stevens, spinning intimate, cryptic yarns about near-deaths and abusive fathers over his band’s homemade art folk.
Now, cut loose from that album’s weighty subject matter, the members of the Acorn find themselves free to have fun again. These new songs soar, for the most part: The hushed intimacy of their last effort has, on tracks like “Cobbled From Dust” and “Bobcat Goldwraith,” been replaced with a palpable — and rousing — sense of uplift. “Crossed Wires,” especially, shows just how much the Acorn has changed since its last release: It sounds more like a conventional indie-rock song than anything particularly “folk.”
Which just goes to show that Klausener and his gang could really be bringing their particular style to just about any genre. They don’t have roots music in their blood; they’re from a major city, and half of them are classically trained musicians. They just happen to like this stuff, and it shows. The fiddle-enhanced “Slippery When Wet” (which I’m almost positive has backing vocals from Will Oldham, and which bears no relation to the Bon Jovi track) is genuinely affecting, and is no less so when outdated questions about “authenticity” are brought up.
That song is the first of a trio of near-ballads that close out the otherwise jumpy record, and highlight what the Acorn does best: atmospheric indie-folk augmented by experimental instrumentation. “Almanac,” for example, shows a knack for subtle arrangements and for intensifying things without getting louder that would make the Dessner brothers jealous (or at least make them seriously consider including these guys on the next Dark Was the Night compilation).
But while the band may sound like the National in some respects, Klausener is nowhere near Matt Berninger’s equal when it comes to writing a lyric that raises the skin. It’s clear Klausener fancies himself something of a poet, and he very well might be one. But lines like “It gets my tongue tied twisted,” while clever, are far too cerebral to really penetrate the surface in the context of a rock song. He’s far more effective when just turning “fire” into a multi-syllabic word over whatever jagged, sculpted guitar line or spacey synth his bandmates can throw at him. It’s those little flourishes that give this album heft, and make it worth spending the time to get to know — there’s always a buried electronic blip or old-fashioned piano part waiting to be uncovered.
The National comparison is apt in another respect: That band, too, started out as an artsy indie-folk act before abandoning that angle for the paranoid, tastefully arranged orchestral rock it plays now. They also didn’t gain a significant level of attention until their fourth album. This is the Acorn’s third. If they can continue to hone the stuff they currently do so well, then maybe they, too, can one day debut on the Billboard charts right behind Justin Bieber.