Americana can be a polarizing genre of music.
Because of the genre’s association, both thematically and through decades of live performances, with programs like A Prairie Home Companion, it can be easy to lump the genre in with Garrison Keillor’s brand of forced, saccharine small town eccentricity. Other bands push a strangely conservative desire to return to a bygone age of white t-shirts, sock hops, and lengthy musical clashes between fiddles, banjos, and mandolins.
But at its best, Americana combines the stripped down charm of music made before effects pedals and studio tricks with a bittersweet taste of nostalgia for the false simplicity with which we all seem to remember our own pasts.
The difference often seems to come out of the band’s, or the songwriter’s, ability to incorporate contemporary themes and ideas without overly relying on the past. It takes a subtle touch to relive history without romanticising it, or to create a song that reaches back through time without sounding antiquated.
Denver’s The Northern Empty manages to strike that balance on their debut album Suzie.
One of the album’s best songs, Off the Floor, really typifies this balance. The understated mix of piano, acoustic guitar, and interspersed mandolin and violin perfectly accent singer Nick Anderson’s quiet intensity. The strings take turns pulling the listener through the verse and bridge with simple hooks before the attention turns to the vocals. The chorus mixes what seems like a painful plea with fond encouragement, with Anderson gently asking, “so won’t you get up off that floor?” The song is expertly put together, with each instrument feeling distinctly essential while also balancing with each other. Coupled with Anderson’s singing, which is equally emotive and vulnerable, and violin player Raven Underwood’s expertly placed harmonies, the song really hits the mark.
Other highlights like Suzie and That Old Door Frame similarly benefit from restrained arrangements and the stripped down vocals that usually accompany the genre’s best songwriters. In particular, The Northern Empty are adept a homing in on simple imagery and small turns of phrase. In Suzie, Anderson paints a simple but powerful picture, singing, “Hey Suzie won’t you call my name, I can hear the sound of the pouring rain, as we read our books leaned up against your old bed frame.” In a genre where songs often get crushed under the weight of faux poetics, these songs keep it simple, which actually ends up creating more lyrical weight.
As an album, Suzie creates beauty out of simplicity. The songs are tightly put together, fresh, and catchy enough for a wide appeal. In a genre that can lose its way trying to sonically recreate the glory days, The Northern Empty uses the best of the past to compliment their catchy and accessible songs.
Check out Suzie at The Northern Empty’s Bandcamp, or on Spotify, and catch them at Larimer Lounge on March 13 supporting Magic Giant: