Review Summary: Tigers on Trains deliver another phenomenal indie-folk record and make it look easy.
As the strangely optimistic chants of “death is not a curse, it’s the only thing that’s keeping us alive” faded out and 2009’s Grandfather
came to its brilliant conclusion, listeners of the mostly unknown indie-folk outfit Tigers on Trains were left to wonder what would come next. Would we hear from this brilliant duo again? It was a fair question, considering that both front men, Mason Maggio and Christian Van Deurs, founded The Republic of Wolves – a heavier, more fully realized alternative rock version of Tigers on Trains. As that project began to take off thanks in part to a mislabeled demo that fell into the hands of zealous Brand New fans, it seemed as though Tigers on Trains were slowly (but inevitably) becoming a thing of the past. It was a shame, really, because even though both bands are exceptional in their own right, it is clear that Maggio and Van Deurs are natural folk musicians. Their vocals sound best when they are singing (not screaming, with all due respect to The Republic of Wolves), and creating gorgeous melodies layered overtop of pristine acoustic picking. So when word got out that Grandfather
’s follow-up was in the works, it’s safe to say that a surprisingly large section of the fan base roared its approval. That follow-up, titled Foundry
, is worth the three year wait. And best of all, it solidifies Tigers on Trains as a folk band worthy of critical acclaim instead of just being viewed as a mere afterthought.
One of the most noticeable aspects of Foundry
is the improved vocals of Maggio and Van Deurs. Perhaps the breakthrough that The Republic of Wolves experienced is the best thing that could have happened to Tigers on Trains, because in the end, both singers seem more in sync with their surroundings. Maggio’s vocal melodies have never sounded more limber and versatile, curving to fit the softest crevices and climbing to reach the highest notes all with relative ease. His vast range and unwavering control is what makes tracks like ‘There Is No Prize’ possible, although nearly every song on this record showcases his talents in the same way that Bookends
unleashed Paul Simon way back in the 1960’s. Both vocalists’ individual progression comes with even better
harmonies, which is saying a lot for anyone who’s heard the unbelievable rapport that they shared on previous outings. ‘Myrrhine’ is one of the most obvious instances of their gorgeous chemistry, but one doesn’t need to examine the album that closely to find moments like these. They descend upon Foundry
in waves of stunning beauty, constantly providing it with a rare level of cohesiveness and an atmosphere that permeates the entire experience like a steady, uniformly flowing river. In that sense, Foundry
is even better than Grandfather
Even where Tigers on Trains haven’t shown marked improvement, they have still managed to preserve most of the qualities that drew listeners to their unique sound in the first place. The technical precision, the deceivingly complex acoustic picking, and the masterful song structuring have all made a triumphant return, allowing Foundry
to feel like the natural progression from Grandfather
that it truly is. The brilliant, philosophical lyrics are also back for another round, reflecting on existential, religious, and interpersonal issues with a depth that can be matched by few. In fact, their lyrics often read like old English poetry – concocting elaborate metaphors, comparing human life to nature, and raising questions that can’t necessarily be answered. ‘There Is No Prize’ contains one of the most profound passages in modern folk, stating, “there is no leaf, no patch of grass but that which is withering fast / So what is grace, what is beauty, but that which some day will die?” As bleak as the stance that Maggio and Van Deurs are taking here, it is nonetheless an ingenious one – everything after its inception commences a process of withering away, from tangible things like life to inanimate emotions such as hope and love. Eventually, everything ends. Then there’s the religious commentary of ‘Royal Asiatic Society’, a track which proclaims, “to all your antique gods, take all the tolls you want / the other side of this bridge is all we've got.” That last sentence, in particular, seems to summarize the way that religion can make human beings feel trapped – as if their only option is to offer monetary compensation as a means to the other side of the bridge
(a metaphor for the afterlife). With instrumental and lyrical depth abound, Foundry
stays true to the principles upon which Tigers on Trains were founded.
Despite all of its superb qualities, Foundry
falters in a few key areas. The aforementioned level of cohesiveness also detracts from each song’s ability to distinguish itself, with the majority of the record floating by with minimal variations in tempo or style. The song tempos all hover within the comfortable nook of indie-folk balladry, rarely mustering enough energy to shake you out of the daze that they induce. It’s an album for relaxing mornings and quiet evenings surely, but Tigers on Trains are capable of creating something with a much wider appeal. Additionally, Foundry
is significantly less accessible than its predecessor Grandfather
. While some fans will understandably view this as a good thing, it causes the band to lose some of its initial appeal. Tracks such as ‘Muhammad’, ‘The Silk Road’, ‘The Grammarian’, and ‘A Year in the Garden Shed’ are virtually nonexistent, resulting in a piece that is utterly gorgeous in the moment, but scarcely memorable after it has concluded. ‘Mont Ventoux’ is most likely the lone exception, bringing an infectious verse and astonishingly beautiful chorus to the table. However, at track eleven, it feels like a case of too little too late – not to mention a frustrating reminder of what Foundry
could have been with only a few more tracks like it sprinkled here or there. These issues don’t condemn Tigers on Trains’ sophomore effort by any means; they do, however, prevent it from reaching its ultimate potential.
is a no frills, silver lined indie-folk record that sounds like it could have come straight out of a foggy, eighteenth century forest. Still aglow with Grandfather
’s three year old embers, Tigers on Trains’ follow-up effort almost takes on a Renaissance feel; the poetic lyrics will tug at your heart strings, the existential themes will make you contemplate ideals that you haven’t pondered since your adolescence, and the stripped-down, natural, completely acoustic instrumentals will lull you into an almost nirvana-like state of emotional equilibrium. There’s this pervading sensation of starting over, as if the world of music has collapsed under its own weight leaving only Christian Van Deurs, Mason Maggio, and an instrumental set to pick up the pieces. It’s not without its flaws, but it’s a damn good place to start.