Following in the grand tradition of misleading monikers (Thompson Twins, 10,000 Maniacs), Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, and Amelia Randall Meath are the trio of voices that form Mountain Man. And more than anything else, it is their voices that elevate Made The Harbor above the babbling brook of Appalachian folk music flowing through indie music these days. Pairing their exquisite harmonies with almost nothing else, Mountain Man creates an album that can be appreciated as much for what it achieves as for what it leaves out.
When Cowboy Junkies recorded Trinity Session in a quiet church with a single microphone, it sounded like nothing else in music at the time. Mountain Man has followed a similar path by recording Made the Harbor in an ice cream parlor in upstate New York. The natural reverb of the ice cream parlor is no less important than the occasional acoustic guitar that comes and goes throughout the album. There is no attempt to diminish the hiss of the recording equipment that sounds like leaves brushing against a glass window. The music sounds exactly as it did in the ice cream parlor with the occasional laugh or deep breath left where it arose. As a result, the mood of the album transcends the individual songs and feels impossibly intimate for a recording released in 2010.
Thematically, the albums remains rooted in the natural world with buffalo, dogs, and honeybees woven into the narratives. On ‘Loon Song’, one voice plays the role of the bird and takes flight above the gentle plucking of acoustic guitar. While this makes for a consistent and lovely mood, the strongest lyrical moments are those centered on womanhood in the vein of Ani Difranco at her most unguarded moments. On ‘Soft Skin’, the domestic details are just right – "cleaned up a quart of spilt milk in the moonlight" – as the woman tries to fulfill the appropriate role – "We’re so wet, we’re so tight/Lean me down into the floor tonight/Can’t you understand/I’m trying to be a good woman" before finally begging to be let go. Wrapped in a blanket of gentle folk music, ‘Soft Skin’ cannot hide the chilling tale at its core.
The rustling hiss of the tape provides the only background noise on ‘Babylon’ as the a cappella harmonies of Psalm 137 soar like angels through a gothic cathedral. It is these astonishing moments that make you wonder how three Vermont co-eds in their 20’s created an album completely untouched by the modern world. It is an idyllic celebration of the most emotional instrument in music: the human voice. Made the Harbor shines as a folk album but the greater achievement lies simply in its existence.