Morning River Band – s/t EP

Morning River Band - s/t EP

Situated – as one of their songs suggests – somewhere “between the ocean and the blues,” Americana outfit The Morning River Band seems to veer often toward the latter, blending sepia-toned charm and old timey songwriting with assured pedal steel guitar and harmonica performances. A couple of the tunes on their debut self-released EP are as effervescent as a sea breeze, but that’s as far as the coastal imagery goes. The album cover, which takes Calexico’s iconic artwork and adds a dash of southwestern kitsch, is misleading; these songs would sound more natural in the Deep South than they would Santa Fe.

The quartet – led by vocalist/guitarist/harmonica player Jeffrey Fields – packs a whole lot of potential into an album that doesn’t even eclipse 10 minutes in length. Lushly layered with gentle acoustic guitar strums, slick pedal steel melodies, and a refreshingly buoyant execution from the rhythm section, these all-too-brief songs (the longest one is still less than 3 minutes in length) it might shock listeners to learn that the band hails from the state of New Jersey, just far enough outside of Philadelphia to give them the same home base bragging rights as Bon Jovi and The Boss.

Opening track “This Heart of Mine” finds pedal steel aficionado Dennis Bonfiglio laying down riff after riff while Fields sings, “This heart of mine just can’t unwind / love is wrapped around.” It’s an affecting way to get things going, the featherweight instrumentation juxtaposed by the lyrical narrative about heartache and regret. Follow-up tune “O Pittsburgh” is just as intoxicating, with Bonfiglio working in a nice counterpoint to Fields’ melodies and bassist Denny Barron singing backup vocals on the refrain: “O Pittsburgh / do you love me anymore?”

“The Morning River Rag” is a succinct little ditty, dominated by pedal steel and harmonica syncopations that would’ve been handled by a piano in the earliest known rags. The technical proficiency and authenticity feel entirely unforced, which means that cutting things off after only 63 seconds feels a bit unnatural. There’s enough excitement here to keep the jam going for at least a few more minutes. Yet depending on how you choose to frame the reasoning behind each song’s brevity, The Morning River Band’s penchant for fleeting snapshots of backwoods folk can be viewed as either a fantastic teaser of better things to come, or as an idea that was never given the time to properly gestate and become fully realized.

I’m going with my first inclination; with the exception of their length – admittedly ideal if you play with the speed and purpose of a band like The Ramones – none of the five tracks on this EP disappoint. It’s only on closing number “Death Is So Many Women” that a little haste feels justified, as Fields throws a little electro-fuzz into the mix and begins to hint at the kind of bluesy torment so aptly handled by groups like The Black Keys. In the end though, I’ll take songs cut too short over longer ones with no substance any day of the week. Head over to their Myspace page and give Morning River Band a listen.