From the first notes of their second album, The Ranger, you can hear Rosu Lup evolving. The synth and string intro foreshadows a record in which the Philadelphia dream folk duo builds on the lush arrangements and cinematic songwriting of their 2016 debut, Is Anything Real.
There was a rawness to that first outing, and here Jonathan Stewart and Josh Marsh deliver a cleaner, more focused work–at times so clean that you might lose the track numbers in the lull of Marsh’s even, soothing voice, especially on your first listen. But nestled in that blanket of atmospheric synths and harmonies, there are moments of catharsis and beauty, often with driving beats in the pattern of The National (see “The Wildflower”).
A few listens in, the creative flourishes come forward and you start to appreciate The Ranger in all its self-produced subtlety. As on their debut, you have the kind of invigorating lead guitar you rarely hear on an indie folk record, and the trumpet and flute accompaniments round out the sound even more. Keys and percussion by James McAlister are predictably solid, but the twist is that he’s not producing–though you could make that mistake, given just how good everything sounds.
Lyrically, the finest moments are the most specific. The opening track, “Come Back Home,” is an affecting portrayal of the complicated feelings that spring up in a family health crisis. Throughout the album run themes of relationship heroism, and, critically, recognizing when you can’t be the hero, as on “What You Need,” where a standout backup vocal bubbles up powerfully, but doesn’t quite lift the track as high as its premise demands. Then again, maybe you can chalk that up to emotional realism; rather than building dramatically, the song ultimately settles down into a bittersweet sense of relief, coming to terms with a difficult situation.
In the instrumental title track, the duo’s more experimental impulse overflows the outro of “The Wildflower,” morphing as it does into an apt summary of the project; gorgeous in its atmospheric guitar textures and flowery orchestration. At their best, Rosu Lup paint in sound as well as they do in words.
They follow it with “Dying Light,” an uncommonly in-focus number that opens with heavy kick drum stomp and acoustic guitar. Here they deliver some of the album’s most direct emotional lines, addressing a child who will one day learn the harshness–and beauty–of the world. Soft, polished brass and gentle snare rolls paint that into a sound picture too.
Even in the midst of the pain and uncertainty that underpins their lyrics, you can feel Rosu Lup taking sure steps forward in studio and songcraft prowess. Both come to a head in the last track, the whispery, fingerpicked “White Birch,” where a synth pad settles like a snow-heavy cloud. It also holds some of The Ranger’s most mysterious sounds. How did they make that backup vocal sound so otherworldly? Is it even a voice at all? I don’t know, but I’ll be back to listen again.