The folk ensemble Darlingside impresses in their live shows by their versatile musicianship, keening four-part harmonies, and witty banter between songs. Seeing the four of them clustered tightly singing through just one microphone easily brings smiles. They naturally create a relaxing, joyous vide. Listening to their albums though requires much more concentration and often leaves a listener puzzled as just where these guys are coming from lyrically. To compound that challenge, we are now listening to their latest Fish Pond Fish, half of which was laid down pre-pandemic with the other half a product of forced individual production due to the pandemic. Add all this up and it is an arduous, though rather pleasant navigation through the worlds of geology, meteorology, ornithology, astronomy, and botany – natural history in song.
Band members Dave Senft (vocals, bass), Don Mitchell (vocals, guitar, banjo), Auyon Mukharji (vocals, violin, mandolin), and Harris Paseltiner (vocals, cello, guitars) started studio recording in late 2019 with Grammy Award winning producer Peter Katis (Interpol, The National). Moving into Tarquin Studios in Bridgeport CT with Katis, the collaborative sessions echoed the band’s early days in Western Massachusetts. The onset of the virus came just as the band was finalizing lyrics for the last batch of songs, which forced them to cancel the final weeks of recording. While quarantining separately, each member set up a home recording rig to capture sounds individually, while mixing, writing, and arrangement decisions were all carried out virtually. Forced to evolve, they moved more toward individual experimentation and decision-making, both in recording and editing, yielding an album that reflects that change, sonically dense yet individually punctuated, as diverse in texture as the many forms of science they embrace.
Those many forms lead us through old-growth forests, down to the deep sea’s ‘true blue bottom where the light ends,’ and up to a few singled-out stars that shine ‘ochre’ overhead. Opening with “Woolgathering,” we journey through gardens, orchard rows, almond groves, and past morning glory vines. With daisies and tidal shifts, singing cicadas and insects blowing over the ocean, murmurings of starlings, and a circling sparrow hawk, all serving as metaphorical references for an emotional experience. When one views these lyrics to the released single “Green + Evergreen” it invariably seems like the pandemic is in the forefront. “Through the oak and poison ivy, As the lemon light was alkalining / I was growing, I was dying / Growing I was dying.” Yet the gospel-like harmonies are heavenly belying the lyrics. The dramatic percussion and weaving electronic effects, not necessarily a characteristic of previous Darlingside recordings, are likely attributable to Katis’ suggestions.
The album takes its title from another released single, “A Light on the Dark.” The band offered considerable commentary on the piece, “The lyrics open with the question, ‘Are you swimming with the fish pond fish, looking for oceans in the saltlessness?’ When we wrote that, we were thinking about social atomization and the idea that people become trapped in these false enclosures — fish ponds of our own making. The world outside one’s home or even outside one’s self can become a darkness to be warded off and shut out, and I’ve certainly been guilty of turning inward and making the world even darker as a result. But I am desperate to break that cycle and I think a lot of people are a light can’t shine only on itself. When the pandemic started, suddenly that idea of shutting out the world became in one sense much more real, and we really did become trapped in our own physical little fish ponds — but I think it also heightened our desperation and willingness to turn outward, to really connect with one another wholeheartedly”.
Similarly, the first released single, “Ocean Bed,” plies this pandemic consciousness by using the theme of stillness—in water, darkness, and in the endless repetitions of our compartmentalized present day. Through it all, and through the many nature metaphors the other aspect that is present is the concept of change, seemingly looming near in the next phase or cycle. Lyrics like “Keep coming home,” “Take me back to south of Denver,” and “Tired of chasing running following,” follow that thread. Much of the album considers how repetition and change complement one another — how either one can be a stress or a salve depending on the circumstances, and how even change itself predictably repeats (“Things will change and change again.”).
Do not read too much in my descriptor of “folk ensemble.” This music is rich and dense, ethereally harmonious, and far from simple. Many of these tunes, with their acoustic strumming, plucked banjos, and some effects, seem as if they are being directly transmitted from the heavens above – certainly the sequence that runs from “Time Will Be” to “February Stars” to “Denver” to “Mountain + Sea.” (quite honestly most of the album) Much of the sound owes to Katis who did things like preserving many components of the initial demos as layers in the produced tracks to retain the spirit of the initial recordings which were highly collaborative, resulting in a collection of songs that is simultaneously the rawest personal demo-like and production-heavy album that the band has yet released. (In “Ocean Bed,” a dog can be heard barking, along with an iPhone recording of a faulty washing machine.) There is far more going on to possibly take in with just one listen.
Darlingside has done what few have managed to do, chronicling the emotions of the pandemic metaphorically while urging us to find beauty where we can and to find the patience and resolve to get through this period, knowing that, like everything that has come before, change is inevitable but may not be reflective of the past we remember.