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Mountain Man – Made The Harbor

on June 28, 2010, 8:01am

Now, first off I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Appalachian folk or traditional Celtic ballads or Ani DiFranco, all music types that seem to influence Mountain Man. Any of these genres (and yes, I think of DiFranco as a genre) would make me uncomfortable to criticize because of my limited experience. In all honesty, if you were to look through my record collection, my iTunes, even the artists I tend to cover here, there is a leaning toward male voices. Yet, strangely, the two records that stick out when I look back at the year so far are Have One On Me and Made The Harbor, with the latter only getting deductions for being one-note and too front-loaded. This strange truth is unlike me and it shouldn’t be a big revelation that men tend to lean towards listening to other men, while women in general drift towards fellow women, for the basic reason that we relate to people who are like us. I think women traditionally are more open to art from members of the opposite sex, but this is probably rooted in the tradition and patriarchy in human history.

Some even try to argue that the vast majority of history’s great artists are men, but this isn’t a matter of capability as much as opportunity. And, though you may feel like as a culture, wherever you are reading this, that your people are getting past the days of racism and sexism and class elitism, there are still miles to go. Women still don’t have the same opportunities as men in general, and when women do get through to the arts, the limits of what is acceptable is still governed by men, whether from the past or in the majority of power positions across the board. Think of some of the current women who try to buck what society says they can and cannot do? Joanna Newsom, who can take the stage playing the biggest instrument she can find and sing in a voice that you’ve never heard anything like? Vivian Girls, who play lo-fi punk that may show some girl group influence, but still are as rocking as any of the boys. Even Best Coast, who I hardly even think of as a woman-led band, just as a band.

The fact remains, though, that women are expected to be pretty, to make pretty music, and when they don’t, well they should at least be in an all-girl band to try to capitalize on their femininity. Men, well, they can do pretty much anything they want. But still, though it may sound like just another patriarchy-acceptable way for women to make art without ruffling any feathers, Mountain Man is not your typical group of Vermont hippies or farm-raised folkies. The sophistication of their debut album is beyond the typical limits of quality you can expect from a genre piece (it’s firmly rooted in traditional folk music), and though undeniably feminine, their band name and their songs’ preoccupation with nature suggests that they don’t want to be looked at solely as women artists, but just artists.

It’s important to note that just because they are one of the first genre expanding women’s groups to get my attention, doesn’t mean women just like them aren’t making music everywhere. But, I listened to Mountain Man because there has been a steady buzz about them in the music media for months. Now, folk albums of any sort don’t really get advanced release buzz, especially a debut album, and double-especially from girls barely into their 20’s making music that usually has an older crowd.. But whether it was their label pushing the press or just the right journalists getting the ball moving, someone was onto something. To say this is a special album is an understatement. Though it probably won’t be my favorite record of the year, or even the month, it will be in the conversation when discussing the best one.

Made The Harbor differs from the majority of contemporary music in its devotion toward nature, rather than the emotions and decisions that govern our preoccupied existence. It reminds you that there was a time where people would much rather hear a poem about a heron than a breakup and this trend in art to make everything about the personal experience reflects a general selfishness that may not be in your every thought, but comes to the forefront when you see the damage such living can lead to (i.e. the crisis in the gulf). From the opening line, the listener is transported out of his head and onto the range with gentle harmonized and barely there backing music telling a not-quite-narrative of following buffalo and following animal tracks, “Buffalo” and “Animal Tracks” respectively. What can I say, their song titles go straight to the point. But the human experience is in these songs as well, because both songs are about collectives, a shared experience between people. The record is full of moments just like this, things that the term priceless was coined for. Later on “Dog Song”, the album’s most beautiful track, the series of nature songs begin to evolve and include the lives of the people that experience them, showing a stark contrast in the innocence of the animals with corrupt and fragile beings that people are.

Though the focus is clearly on the vocals, the gentle guitar melodies do stand out, particularly in “Dog Song” and “Loon Song”, recorded with the intimate hiss of tape and rattle of strings audible. But the music refrains from being outdated, even with flapper era throwback “How’m I Doin’” (lo-fi is in style, right?). But perhaps the most striking moments are where the voices carry the song without accompaniment, sometimes without actual words. “River” sounds like its subject, flowing and rocky, drifting by both smooth and rough. This is incredibly thoughtful stuff, art that transcends any genre, political, or gender spin this writer can put on it. But Made The Harbor also doesn’t try to exist beyond the reality the artists and listeners experience. Even “Dog Song” collapses on itself in the end, where the weight of the relationship bears down, ending with “hurry up, baby, or get out of my sight.”

It’s music that can easily disappear in a crowd or even be lost in a conversation, but if you listen to this in a room by yourself, with the computer off and only the sound of these the ladies working together like bands strive, it will carry you to places your mind doesn’t usually wander. And while some people may find one too many meadow larks or barn owls for their liking, turn on the news, and then tell me that maybe nature doesn’t need a little more attention. Self-centered relationship stories or power struggles or greedy corruptions are just perpetuating a darkness that seems to infect everyone. Why is not the buffalo’s life as important as a man’s? And if the answer is because man is the highest 0n the food chain and has earned his seat at the table, I ask why man’s evolution and knowledge don’t place even more responsibility on his shoulders. This is the same logic that has oppressed women and racial minorities for generations. Some people look out for themselves, some look out for others, and people seem to always make the unfortunate choice when simply the ability to understand the dilemma necessitates a responsibility. If logic or duty is not reason enough to do good in the world, we need more groups like Mountain Man who know that the wilderness is not just a nostalgia piece (at least not yet) and that sometimes the radical comes packaged to fly under the radar.