The last time we heard from the Morning River Band in the spring of 2010, they were assiduously plugging their debut EP of golden-hued Americana. Fronted by multi-instrumentalist Jeffrey Fields and buoyed by the ace performance of pedal steel guitarist Dennis Bonfiglio, the New Jersey quartet was long on charisma but lacking in development, with the denouement being a five-song set that came to an unexpected halt in less than 10 minutes.
A little more than a year later, MRB returns with Between the Oceans and the Blues, a collection of eight tunes nearly three times the length of its predecessor. Named after a track from their eponymous release, the album uses one of America’s most illustrious musical traditions as a vehicle for its tales of habitual hardships and heavy hearts. The lyrics may be rooted in the blues, but the accompanying music bears a striking resemblance to the rustic country-rock of Neil Young that Wilco so deftly captured on 2007’s Sky Blue Sky.
Embodied by a simple vocal/guitar/bass/drums scheme but rounded out with flecks of harmonica, mandolin, and piano, Between the Oceans exudes a nonchalant attitude that belies the gravity of its storytelling; more than half of the tunes culled here even mention the blues in their namesakes. Rife with imagery, Fields’ songs suggest human melancholy in several forms, most notably the ephemeral comfort of a bottle and the panic that follows on the heels of ill-advised life choices. Still though, the aura remains that of a group of buds leisurely traversing the country on a summer road trip – carefree, casual, and complaisant.
“Drinking Blues, No. 1 (I’ve Been Drinking)” establishes a blueprint of midtempo acoustic guitar strums, pedal steel inflections, and Fields’ gauzy tenor. “You come back to me / to share a drink / and read old letters,” he muses with a crackle in his voice. Clearly in an undesirable mental space, Fields also mentions the gates of heaven and pleads for forgiveness before Bonfiglio and violinist Joe Kille take over with an ambrosial duet. “It’s OK (To Be Scared)” flirts with similar affectations, the pedal steel at the foreground of a tawny canvas. “If Not the Flood, the Fire” is more thickly textured due to the presence of mandolin and occasional female backup vocals. The song’s atmosphere is one of introspection and soldiering onward, which ring particularly true when Fields sings, “Wasn’t looking for redemption / lost her miles ago / when I woke up there beside her / found a truth I’d never known.” “Bluebonnet Blues” is MRB in total slowburn mode, as the instrumentation pulsates with warmth over an abated 3/4 groove and a recurring mantra of, “10 minutes too late / 5 Sundays too soon.”
If Between the Ocean and the Blues suffers from anything, it’s the same dearth of risk taking that many critics accused Wilco of when Sky Blue Sky’s hit shelves; the songs are all lushly arranged and possess an attractive glow, but they attempt little in the way of tension and release. By the time “Sunken Ships” arrives as the closing number, it feels as though we’ve been listening to a swan song for the past 25 minutes. Fields has the sort of voice capable of producing a gritty bray, and the album would’ve done well to intersperse its sublime aesthetics with the occasional stomping barnburner. Taken for what it is though, the Morning River Band makes this midsummer bummer look awfully appealing.