Review Summary: With quivering elegance, Photographers aim high and conquer even higher.
Many of the most highly esteemed musicians these days seem to feel the need to set themselves from the crowd through gathering under a paper tent of “uniqueness”, a tent constructed haphazardly and only for the purpose of shallowly piquing our interests. In the meantime, a tidal wave of musicians has flooded the scene, not adhering to arbitrary requirements but rather leaving pretenses at the door and assembling something instinctual. When ideas are created with this carefree ease, there’s something refreshing about the nature in which they come about – this explains the influx of artists mirroring Laura Stevenson’s unrelenting fragility, and the ensuing saturation of “the sweet card” being played by multiple artists at once. With one adorable duo after another professing their sappy adorations, when is too much too much? How are we to tell if much of the players in these candid, cutesy acts are, indeed, just acting?
These were the questions on my mind when I first discovered Photographers, simply desperate for a pop-indie act that didn’t masquerade themselves behind absurdity. And I’m not going to lie - at first, Photographers came across as a little artificial. The melodies felt too comfortable, the quivery vocals felt too delicate and the wide assortment of instruments felt a bit ostentatious. After all, it had felt like I had listened to aspects of this album before, as if fragments of it could be found in music from my past. This is unquestionably true, because it’s immediately evident that Photographers wear their influences on their sleeve. However, with repeated listens what comes across most vividly is the genuine nature of ‘Nostalgia The Country’. Passion radiates from every note, whether it’s from the vocal interplay between Maren Celest and John Hanson or the wide array of instruments that back them up. And on top of that, the group’s debut is startlingly consistent – there aren’t really any duds throughout the entire album’s duration, and there are even quite a few standout tracks here. All in all, color me pleasantly surprised at how well this gem has stuck with me, and how the group didn’t just end up being another ill-fated attempt at cuteness.
That being said, though, this is the most adorable thing I’ve heard in a long time. Celest’s fragile voice quivers over the dreamy folk backdrops of the album, and coalesces with Hanson’s gentle croons that honestly are soothing enough to be reminiscent of Seabear
. In “Jack Frost”, for instance, the vocal interplay is simply flawless, and extremely engaging despite the fact that it isn’t even at the forefront of the song. And the two voices unify on the track “Safety” brilliantly, one of the definitive highlights of the album. While the warm vocals really do make this album shine, it simply wouldn’t mean as much as it does if it weren’t for the varietal instrumentation on display. For instance, the plucked banjo in “Open Door” contributes to the pleasant, earthy atmosphere quite profoundly, and the addition of bells and woodwinds in “Jack Frost” does wonders to contribute to the song’s potency. Moreover, all throughout the album there are subtle uses of diverse instruments that really bring out the music’s inherent vivacity. One key ingredient of Photographers’ musical formula that may very well dissuade potential listeners is Celest’s exceedingly quivery voice. This is most evident in opening track “Feathers in the Field”, where her voice is perhaps a bit too peppy for its own good. However, this is an attribute that’s toned down for much of rest of the album, and even when it does reoccur (like in much of “Safety”) it adds much to the context of the song.
The truth is that even the moments when these faults emerge only further the degree of humanity of the album, the one component of this release that sets it ahead of its peers. This is because ‘Nostalgia the Country’ possesses a key element that’s inherently human, and it’s a collection of songs that cater directly to us and our experiences. The sheer ambition of it all is what turns it into something more than merely a batch of pretty songs at the end of the day, something that will stay with us long after the record stops spinning.