On their excellent 2016 sophomore release We All The Light, River Whyless’ organic folk/ world-beat style was infectious. Now on Kindness, A Rebel current America cultural tribalism injects itself fully, yet the results remain engaging. The Asheville, NC quartet (Ryan O’Keefe: vocals, guitar Halli Anderson: vocals, violin Alex McWalters: drums Daniel Shearin: vocals, bass, harmonium) deliver a full band approach, each contributing as songwriters, creating a cohesive album.
Opener “All of My Friends” beautifully points into the yearning future with Anderson’s breathy vocals and pulsing synth work before “Born in the Right Country” gallops in, proclaiming the band’s intentions; this is a 2018 album soaked in the political/cultural zeitgeist. The album is constantly discussing broken modern homes, refugees, war-torn families, the stagnant economy, financial inequality, failing farms and more. The band questions all people, challenging their sense of right/wrong yet managing to do so in immensely warm musical fashion.
Starting with its title, Kindness, A Rebel is thematic, aiming to start conversations, from the huge bass and frantic pogoing “Feeling of Freedom”, which laments working three jobs yet the rents still late, to the ballad “War is Kind”, sung to a war orphan via strings, harmonies and slim hope. “New Beliefs” successfully keeps the bass prominent directly attacking class politics and religion while sprinkling in handclaps, plinking piano, crisp violins, ringing guitar lines and a fuzzy closing; an album highpoint.
“Failing Farm” is an artistic experiment which wobbles, overloaded by too many musical ideas, but it is a perfect example of who this band resembles; a rural Talking Heads coming of age in the MAGA moment, overwhelmed by a social media barrage. The group isn’t afraid to insert themselves into the national discussion, even while remaining musically welcoming, and while the urban/funkier Heads were more opaque with their lyrics, the modern age has changed things immensely.
Perhaps the best tune on the whole album has the least to do with the current cultural moment as “Motel 6” is a rare road song that connects with any listener. The honest soaring vocals from O’Keefe, the ever present rich bass from Shearin, and easy rolling drums from McWalters all convey that terrifying solo awaking post break up; fear of a failed relationship rarely sounds this gorgeous.
The back end of the album returns to this more introspective side as the sister songs “Another Shitty Party” and “Darkness in Mind” address discomfort in isolationism, whether alone or in a room full of people. The eerie overtones of both songs display a darker side of the band fitting them well before the acoustic sing-along ready “Mamma Take Your Time” closes out the album on a blander note, failing to truly nail the dismount.
While River Whyless hasn’t abandoned its world groove styling completely (look no further than the infectious as fuck “Van Dyke Brown”), they have added gravity to their songs with immediately gripping lyrics, fantastic vocals, dynamite production (from Paul Butler), and all around stout writing. Far from divisive, Kindness, A Rebel is a musical conversation trying to address the nation’s ills over gorgeous sounds, a breakout from this talented group.