CD Review: Beams "Just Rivers"
Any folk-pop fans fearing a lack of fruitful ideas left to mine can take solace in the eccentric beauty of Toronto-based Beams' Just Rivers. The Canadian septet fronted by Anna Mérnieks offers such a dizzying array of bouncy arrangements that you'd be hard-pressed to classify it as folk in any strict sense, but it's a giddy, attention-worthy winner no matter what label you stamp on it.
As strange as it sounds, maybe imagine Broken Social Scene's Feist-fronted output with a crisply rustic overhaul in which the collective's sexily euphoric bombast is exchanged for whimsical Americana textures rounded out with mandolin, banjo, lap steel and musical saw. If that strikes you as 1) ridiculous and 2) improbably intriguing, rest assured 1) it's not and 2) it is. Need proof? If an unlikely BSS association seems grossly overarching, realize this is a band not only willing to tackle Portishead's trip classic "Glory Box," but also able to reinvent Beth Gibbons' seductively soulful pleas into a purely intoxicating creation with all the heart and artistry of the original while working on a disparate end of the pop spectrum.
Beams are every bit as tight-knit of a group as that aforementioned indie powerhouse. This is a band with roots deep in one another - Mérnieks' seasoned partner Mike Duffield plays the drums, while long-time friends Heather Mazhar (vocals), Craig Moffatt (bass), Dave Hamilton (mandolin), Keith Hamilton (musical saw), and Martin Crawford (lap steel) all fill crucial roles in Beams' refreshing sound - and the earned kinship comes through in the undeniable warmth of these songs.
Mérnieks' limber vocals are something to behold throughout Just Rivers. Her songwriting often snakes along with fairly ominous mystique ("too much fun in the sun / could kill someone / run little magpie, run, run, run / you got kissed by the lip of his gun" on "Too Much Fun"), but her airy performances (frequently in gorgeous, understated harmony with Mazhar) project an atmosphere that's akin to a hop and a skip through a phosphorescent Middle Earth (See: "Sun Wraps 'Round" with its oddly buoyant refrain "time wraps blankets around you and I / so we don't get hypothermia and die").
Of course, Mernieks' vocals merely account for one-seventh of the folksy magic dripping from Just Beams. It's impossible to overstate the allure Keith Hamilton brings to the proceedings while wielding his saw. There aren't many acts working the saw or its similar-sounding, hands-off counterpart, the theremin, into their tunes. That Beams make the eerie bleat of Hamilton's saw an instrumental component of their songs instantly differentiates Just Rivers' sound from just about everyone else operating under the seemingly all-inclusive umbrella of Americana. The mandolin and lap steel color the palette even more vividly and root the saw's wail in an accomplished, grounded sound and immediately validate its presence; the earthly pull provides necessary balance and keeps Beams from stumbling into the trap of kitsch. It's a fine feat that many other kitchen-sink-and-all bands either wouldn't attempt in the first place or know how to pull off properly, but Beams' comfortable knowledge of each other and their unique strengths pay off handsomely on record (and presumably even better live). Credit producer Peter J. Moore (Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Sessions) with the finely tuned ears for fashioning those strengths into arrangements this lushly layered and full of moxie.
It's reasonable to believe you may encounter an act or two in the months ahead that may allow you to conjure some brief glimmer of Just Rivers, but I promise you won't hear anything remotely like what Beams has crafted in whole with alluring hues on their debut. On the delirious, two-minute closer "End of the Bar," Mérnieks and Mazhar breathlessly chant "At the end of the bar at the end of the day everybody's talkin' about the cheap cocaine. See it go around and I pass again, it feels good when the night comes in" while the band chugs along in bouncing, workmanlike fashion. At the midpoint, Hamilton's saw takes center stage for a mesmerizing solo. Seconds later, Crawford vaults in with a juicy lick of lap steel accompaniment to circle back around for the final jaunt of enthusiastic harmony.
On paper, it's a mess that should make no worldly sense. In reality, it, like every other tune Beams power with verve on Just Rivers, is an unholy cocktail that goes down twenty times smoother than rationality should allow. Drink it down, savor the taste, and don't be surprised to find yourself bellying up to the bar to treat your closest friends on the next round.
*This review first appeared on Division St. Harmony on June 18, 2013.
Beams - "Be My Brother"
Beams - "How Wonderful"
Beams - "Glory Box" (Portishead cover)
Justin is a featured contributor to No Depression, and he resides on the outskirts of Indianapolis in Noblesville, Indiana. He writes his own music blog Division St. Harmony (@DivisnStHarmony), and he has been a senior contributor to The Silver Tongue and Laundromatinee.
Justin has an affinity for writing and music that is both rich in head and heart. Feel free to follow him on Twitter at @clashrebel & @DivisnStHarmony and on Facebook.
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