Central Virginia folk rock group Chamomile and Whiskey released their debut album, Wandering Boots, in 2013. After four years, they’ve returned with Sweet Afton, a slick sophomore follow-up boasting a cleaner production quality and an older, wiser set of players. It’s a mature, unhurried outing, and it gives the impression of a band that has put in the time in to explore its aesthetic potential.
The founding trio of singer/guitarist Koda Kerl, singer/fiddler Marie Borgman, and singer/banjo player Ryan Lavin are joined by bassist Marsh Mahon and drummer Stuart Gunter. There are other friends of the band mixed in on steel guitar, flute, tin whistle—whatever makes the arrangement pop.
And more often than not, pop it does, particularly on the record’s potent batch of mid-tempo party songs. “Good as it Could Be” is a natural standout, with its tongue-in-cheek, something-is-better-than-nothing attitude. It’s grounded in a friendly sing-along chorus, but between the flute melodies and the phase-modulated banjo, it also holds some of the record’s bolder sonic experiments.
With multiple singers and songwriters in a band, the boundaries between each member’s influences are often more pronounced, and the rule holds true for Chamomile and Whiskey.
Lavin’s contributions tend to draw from Celtic folk. On “Thalia,” an earthy, stripped-down guitar ballad, his voice practically drips with Irish mountain mist. Cello accompaniment and drum accents subtly shape its emotional peaks and valleys. On “Come Along,” he wonders if he’ll ever go back to Galway, giving the record another upbeat, danceable number in the process. It’s topped off with fiddle/tin whistle unisons, more unmistakable fingerprints of Irish influence.
Kerl’s songs point to more contemporary folk rock. Consider the album’s lead single, “Gone,” a poignant reflection on loss, deploying pedal steel and bowed bass on a familiar pop progression. There’s also “Sleepless Nights,” which foregrounds the drum kit and a straight-up electric guitar solo. It’s a pleasant surprise, but it’s also one moment where juggling many elements risks obscuring the production’s most interesting features.
The groups greatest successes are somewhere between the two poles. With its bluegrass bass line, plus one of Borgman’s catchiest fiddle hooks, “Solomon’s Reel” situates itself at the midpoint of Ireland and Appalachia. Here, Chamomile and Whiskey (along with producer Rob Evans) show they know how to make the most of the tools at their disposal. They craft a dynamic arrangement, with group vocals and nimbly woven instrumental breaks.
The word “deliberate” comes to mind with Sweet Afton. It’s not often lacking in liveliness, but it’s an evenly-paced record, a little less rowdy and a little less rough around the edges than its predecessor. Making a record is like mixing drinks, where different proportions—of influences, of instruments, of energy levels— can yield different, but equally pleasing, results. Sweet Afton is a touch more chamomile than whiskey, and the studio shine helps it go down nice and smooth.
Stay tuned for an interview with Chamomile and Whiskey’s Koda Kerl, coming later this month.