Review Summary: "There is no leaf, no patch of grass, but that which is withering fast".
Tigers on Trains exist within the liminal space between myth and reality. Their soft, infectious acoustic melodies and dreamlike vocal harmonies are intimate and modern, while their lyrics and narrative storytelling recall blurry memories of a universally shared past, archetypes that resonate for reasons unknown. This heavenly blend of musical ideas was first realized on their 2009 debut Grandfather, a renowned release in indie folk circles for its warmth, wordplay, and sonic beauty. More overlooked is their brilliant follow-up, 2012’s Foundry, which can be seen as both an extension and an improvement of their sound when examined thoroughly. Throughout the 12-track journey of the record, Mason Maggio and Christian Van Deurs repeatedly combine their ornate musical arrangements with deft and dreamlike lyricism to create a spellbinding album that reveals more and more of its understated genius with each subsequent listen.
The development of Tigers on Trains’ instrumental sound is displayed immediately from the opening seconds of introductory track “In The Atlas Cedars”, as the listener is greeted with shimmering electric guitars and lead lines. Grandfather’s bare-bones arrangement style was characterized by the occasional splash of melodic embellishment (the marvelous acoustic guitar solo on “Sea Weed”, as well as the harmonized picking intro of “Ship Shape”) while almost always staying firmly grounded in acoustic territory. Foundry’s introduction of electric instrumentation as a permanent fixture of Tigers on Trains’ sound is revelatory, primarily because of its function in creating an enveloping atmosphere that elevates the album from by-the-numbers indie folk to an absolutely compelling listening experience. The way these new sounds mesh with the band’s signature acoustic simplicity allows for the instrumentation to aid the storytelling in a new and refreshing way. Grandfather featured sudden and impactful shifts in dynamics, such as the acclaimed ending of album closer “A Year in the Garden Shed”, that relied upon explosions of volume from both the vocalists and the guitars. Foundry has plenty of these powerful moments, namely on the front half of the album, as well as in back half highlight “Mont Ventoux”, but the fuller instrumental sound of the record allows Tigers on Trains to chart a course into previously unexplored subtleties as well. For a great example of this, look no further than “From A Silver Till”, the album’s longest track and a slow burn of epic proportions. It never reaches “Garden Shed” levels volume-wise, but the sonic world developed through the soaring vocal harmonies and reverb-soaked electric strums fashions a captivating atmosphere.
Intricate instrumentation like this isn’t the only way Tigers on Trains excel at world building; in fact, it’s only the tip of the iceberg, as the band’s lyricism is the clear highlight and focal point of their musical expression. Drawing from a smorgasbord of influences such as mythology, world religions, and existential philosophy, Maggio and Van Deurs toe the line between humility and profundity with ease, examining the fundamental absurdity of existence while also leaving the record posing more questions than answers. “Myrrhine” weaves an imagery-laden tale of compassion and hope that becomes much more complicated to listen to when one realizes that it coexists with “There Is No Prize”, a borderline nihilistic consideration of meaning and mortality. The use of religious metaphors, such as references to the thorn in the Apostle Paul’s side on “A Chain” or loved ones turning to salt on “Washington State” serve to provide hope that a true meaning really may be out there, regardless of what books or lived experience may have influenced one to believe. The album lyrically grows more personal the closer the listener arrives to its conclusion, culminating in the gorgeous “Sawmill”, a tale of building a life and affirming it, despite the apparent meaninglessness of it all. These themes are only strengthened by the band’s new musical direction, as the new ethereal electric sounds serve to make the presence of the vocals feel a bit smaller in comparison to the vast expanse of the world built by the musicians.
Foundry is a triumph and a perfect second step for Tigers on Trains to have taken following their debut. Its combination of newly developed musical influences accompany the signature aspects of the band’s musical identity with ease and efficiency, building a sophisticated and breathable musical atmosphere for Maggio and Van Deurs to whisper their mythic tall tales into. Upon repeated listens, one thing becomes clear. Foundry’s beauty and brevity point toward a powerful and salient truth, and maybe the most important thought to be conjured by the record; it’s all beautiful, and it will all pass within the blink of an eye.