Tracing White Violet’s lineage through the modern folk/Americana pantheon is pretty straightforward, and their bloodline is pretty blue: Frontman Nate Nelson cut his teeth with a number of Saddle Creek luminaries, including Maria Taylor (he provided vocals on “Clean Getaway”) and Andy LeMaster (who engineered or played on just about every Bright Eyes record). He’s also shared the stage with Nik Freitas, one of the principal members of Conor Oberst’s Mystic Valley Band. All of which is to say that if you’ve heard a song like MVB’s “Cape Canaveral,” you already know what cards White Violet is holding.
And it’s not such a bad hand, either. Taking vocal cues primarily from Oberst, though far lighter on the warble, or maybe a lower-register Elliott Smith, Nelson’s words on Hiding, Mingling eke out a lonely, grasping existence over slow or mid-tempo acoustic rhythms, brushed here and there with pedal steel or the occasional synth or organ. It’s very much a southern Gothic soundscape, that much is certain; the mood is overwhelmingly humid and dark, like one of the Athens, Ga. nights Nelson surely knows well. Each song is fraught with melancholic pining, somehow full of both longing for home and the desire for escape. On opener “White Wash,” his home town has “lost too many friends,” priming us for the ambivalence of “4 AM”: “Here's the place I've learned to love/ It's my mind, it's ?own above/ Setting sights on another town/ But walking here makes a sound.”
Hiding, Mingling isn’t all about the slow-burners, though. “Lays Around Lazy” is refreshingly brisker, as is “Everyday Is Listening,” though neither shakes off that mournful cloud. The obligatory country song about a train and/or bar is here in “Station,” in which the speaker waits “on a seat by the bar” where he’ll “bring up the old times.” The past, and the regret that accompanies it, is a constant presence. In “Blame,” though, there’s a touch of hope among the mopey thorns – “I put my faith in sound/ then walk fast and slink around” – but the sentiment serves mostly to emphasize the consistent pessimism that surrounds it.
So while Nelson’s debts to Oberst or Smith are clear throughout Hiding, Mingling – though really, those are some standup lenders to owe – there’s the distinct feeling that he’s walking a road that’s been paved for him. And those that came before made the effort to extend the path in other directions; so are some of White Violet’s contemporaries: Rural Pennsylvania’s Daughn Gibson takes square aim at the old country tropes and frames them in dread and gospel blues in All Hell. If Nelson and the rest of White Violet hope to contribute to what is, after all this time, a crowded Southern landscape, they’ll have to step outside their love of moonlit cliché and risk a little dirt under their fingernails. What have they got to lose?
Audio: "Lays Around Lazy"