Winter isn’t typically known as a favorite season for many people. Sure, there’s the joy that comes with the holidays and the starting over with a brand new year, but it’s also a time filled with sorrow as well. The weather may not be a problem for you depending on where you’re from, but for those who have experienced the feel of winter, it’s often filled with frigid temperatures and horrible condiditions that can leave us longing for the days of better weather. It’s the antithesis not to just to summer in terms of weather, but in terms of mood as well.
With that said, it’s almost fitting that my first review for the new year is an album that seems to encapsulate those dark feelings. You see, while “sorrow” is the term I used to describe this time of year, I don’t mean to suggest a negative connotation in this instance. Like I said, it’s a time to begin anew, to find yourself and figure out who you want to be, and there can be a sense of poignant beauty hidden within. In that sense, it’s fitting that I’m choosing to review the debut album from the Coal Flowers now.
Their self-titled debut album is one that’s hard to talk about in some respects. I will say that it is a fascinating album. It’s probably one of the most unique albums I’ve heard in awhile actually. With that said though, I also think that there is a lot of room for a band like The Coal Flowers to grow, and so while I don’t think they quite hit the mark here, I’d also argue that this is a band with a ton of potential that’s just showcasing common debut album troubles rather than a band that’s doomed to decay.
The easiest place to start when describing this album would be in its sound (in relation to the instrumentation and production that is). This is not an album that I can describe by genre. Americana may be the closest I could come to getting it right, but even that feels like I’m selling the duo short, especially considering they seem to be drawing from all spectrums of the Country/Americana/Folk world at times.
I would describe this album more by its mood, and really, our talk of the winter season is appropriate for this next discussion. From a pure instrumental standpoint, these songs are all gorgeous. Their main weapons of choice often seem to be the piano and violin, instruments that lead to some hauntingly beautiful melodies as well as establish a darker atmosphere at points. In some respects, I would even go so far as to say that many of these songs have an underlying theatrical atmospheric swell to them (think of the first half of Sturgill Simpson’s “Welcome To Earth” if you want the closest example).
The opening track, “Now You Know” is a great example. Here, we have a song with an optimistic tone that talks of two people realizing they were meant for each other after hiding from that fact for so long, and yet the atmosphere of the song doesn’t really reflect that. It’s the same problems that bog down “Fly” for me, a song that once again plays to an optimistic tone only to be to a very minor, dark tone. It’s just the sort of odd tonal dissonance that keeps me from enjoying these songs as much as I want to. Again, the instrumentation is absolutely gorgeous, it just doesn’t fit those songs.
I’d say it works a little better on the song, “Don’t Let Go”, but it’s here that I find the lyrics to not be as fleshed out as they could be. Here we have a couple that knows that their love is dying and that they need to rekindle the flame before it burns out. However, we never really get a sense of HOW they’re going to do it other than not letting go. The chorus builds up to the hook and it just doesn’t resonate with me as much I’d like it to.
However, that’s not to say that there aren’t moments where the duo gets it right. Actually, there are three spots where they absolutely slam it out of the park. When I say this, I mean to make these out to be more than just “great” songs. They’re examples of the potential that I see within this duo that I’d like to see them expand upon in the future.
The first of these is “Tennessee”, a song that talks of a man who is literally haunted by his memories of “Tennessee”. We never get a sense of why that is or what it is exactly that haunts him, and yet unlike “Don’t Let Go”, there’s so much here to compensate for that. I said before that the lyrics weren’t the primary focus of this band, and this is a great example of their true talent. This song isn’t just dark, it’s melancholy as well, and that’s reflected in the lyrical content as well as Joel’s vocal delivery. That’s also to mention that it’s moving at much better pace than other songs, backed by drums as well as a heavenly violin line.
The second example is “Eleanor”, a song that I can say now is one of my favorite songs of 2016, and the reasoning for why deals a lot with what I said about “Tennessee”. It’s not just dark in sound, it’s melancholy in the lyrical content and vocal delivery. Here, the male narrator is haunted by a former lover (presumed to be dead), and the imagery that accompanies it really accentuates my overall fondness for the song overall (it’s perfect for this time of year). It’s a shame that it’s the shortest song here because it’s absolutely brilliant. I think it’s also worth noting that both this song and “Tennessee” differ lyrically from the rest of the album by focusing on past events that haunt the narrator. It’s just an interesting observation.
The last example is “Alive”, a song that shows a complete sonic difference from the other tracks here, trading in the violin for some blazing guitars instead. Much like “Fly”, it’s diving into a theme of optimism, showcasing the female narrator searching for hope or something to inspire her. Where “Tennessee” and “Eleanor” worked by matching their lyrical content with darker atmospheres, “Alive” does the same thing as well, only matching the message with an atmosphere that’s almost anthemic in nature. The waltz-like shuffle of the melody combined with the continuous intense buildup is a moment of creative genius on this album that I wish we had more of.
There are other moments where the duo opts for some brighter tones as well. “Sweet Baby Of Mine” is another good track on here for matching a brighter tone with the lyrical content, even if that content doesn’t extend much beyond just being a pretty good love song. They also try for that same feeling on “Break Too”, but here it’s moving at too slow of a pace to really work out well, and I feel as if it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the album.
However, I think there is a ton of potential here with the Coal Flowers. They’ve got a unique sound, and when they match their instrumentation and production with their lyrical content, they create songs that are absolutely incredible. I wish we had more of that on this album, but again, this is a debut album, it’s not supposed to be perfect, it’s supposed to be the time where the duo finds their sound, and I think with a little push they could get there. There’s moments of tonal dissonance here, and I will say that some of the arrangements can start to run together after awhile, but those are things which can easily be smoothed out. The things to take away are that for one, Joel and Heather sound great together as a duo, and they’ve got a solid foundation to expand upon for future works. So overall, it may be a weird way to start off the new year by talking about a 2016 album, but it’s definitely one that deserves to be talked about.