Folding chairs were set up in front of the stage, and paper lanterns hung from the ceiling of the Southern Café and Music Hall on Friday—extra ambience for an acoustic show, as Daniel and Lauren Goans, the Charlottesville art-folk duo known as Lowland Hum, celebrated the release of their third album, “Thin.”
Presented by WNRN, the show also featured guest performances from Will Marsh of Gold Connections, Juliana Daugherty, and Kurt Shuler of Omen Moth, all great performers in their own right.
“Thin” came from a unique set of parameters: the Goans’ limited themselves to instruments they could play themselves (no studio musicians as on their past recordings) and they also took up production and engineering duties.
Making music in and about the present moment is a key tenet of the duo’s work. In their live show, they encourage questions and comments between songs, and Daniel will often improvise song-fragments based on anecdotes, jokes, or whatever happens to be on his mind.
The effect is amplified with this particular project. Recorded entirely in a friend’s attic, “Thin” is an album made in the midst of real life, and around other people. On stage, they told the story of their friend’s young daughter, who at first was resistant to having musicians working in her house, but who would later tell her parents “when I grow up, I want to live above you, and stomp and sing.”
Altogether, the setup had a huge influence on the way Lowland Hum went about making a record.
“You’re making music in a world packed with interruptions,” Daniel said in an interview with the Declaration this past November. “I think the environment pushed us further into those spaces of writing about human frailty and limitation.”
Those themes come through, as promised, in the sound as well as the lyrics of the record. “We imagined ourselves / tiny in your hand / climbing the terrain of your soft skin / meanwhile carried forward safely within,” they sing on “Palm Lines,” the first track. It’s one of the sparser numbers, featuring the two singing soft harmonies over acoustic guitar fingerpicking.
You can hear the room, and it’s about as organic as a recording space can get. In spite of the vastness of nature and the smallness of the individual, there is a powerful sense of warmth and companionship. “One foot in front of the other, my darling,” sings Lauren. “The mountain is high / but it’s floating on the ocean.”
Lyrically, it feels like a mission statement for “Thin”. Embracing weakness becomes a kind of strength; by abandoning the resources of a professional studio, Lowland Hum ends up producing an album which highlights the singular quality of any record: though it’s infinitely re-playable, it represents a specific time and place which will never exist again.
This is Lowland Hum at their most vulnerable, and the gambit pays off. “Lift up your face / so the sun can shine on it / Frailty is a friend / who makes you sleep ‘til the morning,” they sing, self-aware about the act of opening themselves up and putting their skills and limitations on display.
Another early standout is “In Flight.” In one interview with NPR, Lauren describes it as “half-sincere and half self-deprecating” with its nods to self-serious folk song clichés: “I guess it’s time for trains / all lonesome singers start sounding the same.”
With its weary melody and improbably dense textures (I swear there’s a string section in there, even though I know there can’t be), the sincere can’t help but win out, especially in its final lines. “Hallelujah for a friend to remind me / that love is patient and kind,” the duo sings, as I tear up.
“Folded Flowers” stands out to me as representative of the album’s best musical moments. The instrumental begins with Daniel’s nylon-string guitar. After the first verse, Lauren keeps time on a guiro frog. As the song goes on, a shaker joins the percussion, and a plugged-in acoustic guitar adds a simple melody. Lauren’s vocals at one point also become part of the instrumental, hovering behind the guitar with the timbre of a flute.
“Let me just see your calm face / remember that it is not a race,” they sing on the chorus, continuing the overarching theme of living in the moment. Sung over the gentle percussion and roomy guitar lead, it’s a comforting mantra.
Even this can’t summarize the full range of “Thin.” The minor-key guitar riffs, slides, and what sound like percussive guitar-body hits of “Adonai,” for example, feel like a twist following “Palm Lines.” “Family Tree” features staccato background vocals by Lauren which come and go, alternating left and right speakers. “Winter Grass” opens with anxious eighth-note guitar strumming, joined with quick piano arpeggios. Each of these moments has space to breathe and make its impact in the overall stripped-down series of arrangements.
There’s also a powerful contrast when the group gets loud. On “Someone to Change my Mind,” Lauren’s vocals are layered and delayed, as she sings “Jesus Christ / he loves us very much,” before demanding “love me.” The guitar sounds lightly overdriven, and crisp claps and snare hits back it up. The track is overall a rare moment of catharsis on an album which is mostly calm and meditative.
More than any of their past albums, “Thin” captures the charm, personality, and down-to-earthiness of Lowland Hum’s one-of-a-kind live show. That much was clear from the release show, where they played a number of tracks from the record, a few old favorites, and a cover of Paul Simon’s “Run that Body Down.”
In thanking the audience for attending the show, Daniel said “All of you have thoughts as important or more important than ours, and I say that because I mean that.” Lauren and Daniel are humble folks who recognize it can be counter-intuitive to slow down and live in the moment, not to mention take the time to go out of your way to listen to a new record or go to a show you haven’t seen. But for what it’s worth from me, Lowland Hum is worth it, and so is “Thin.”
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