Hailing from North Carolina, the folk and Americana duo Mandolin Orange perfectly captures the nostalgia associated with the musical roots of the Appalachian region. The group is composed of singer-songwriter Andrew Marlin, who also plays banjo, mandolin and guitar, and instrumentalist Emily Frantz. Their music simultaneously exudes mystery and intimacy with its warm tones and longing vocals and, as described on their website, “Their songs feel like whispered secrets, one hand cupped to your ear.”
Marlin’s lyrics are more than just words paired with melodies. He blends lyrical storytelling with difficult topics, such as climate change, racism and death. The band’s unique Americana sound and revolutionary song topics make Mandolin Orange one of the most promising up-and-coming folk groups in the United States.
Mandolin Orange’s fourth studio album, “Blindfaller,” showcases the duo’s uncanny ability to meld social commentary with intimate acoustic melodies. Their single “Wildfire” addresses racism by tracing the Southern tradition of hate in American history: “Civil War came, Civil War went / Brother fought brother, the South was spent / But its true demise was hatred, passed down through the years / It should have been different, it could have been easy / But pride has a way of holding too firm to history / And it burns like wildfire.” As the mandolin and guitar mournfully strum, Marlin tells of how liberty was gained through the American Revolution, yet the hatred associated with slavery continued to burn throughout history like a wildfire that has yet to be stamped out.
The poignant “Echo” decries the human destruction of forests and delineates the possibility of a treeless future. Marlin nostalgically describes his childhood as one spent wandering among the pines, yet as an adult, he finds it more difficult to hear the musical voice of the wind moving throughout the wildflowers and trees. “And I saw it in a dream / Monuments to trees / As the air we breathe turned our lungs to dust / And the redwoods so tall / And all their awe / Began to rust,” the duo sings, their voices dark and foreboding. In this treeless future, the music created between the wind and leaves is lost forever, with a lonely echo being the only remnant of the ancient dance of nature.
Mandolin Orange refuses to shy away from discussing the complexities and tragedies of life. In their newest album, “Tides of a Teardrop,” Marlin tackles head-on the emotions he felt after the death of his mother when he was 18. Although the album discusses heavy topics, mainly death and the process of grieving, the songs aren’t bogged down with Marlin’s emotional baggage. Rather, the band honors the memory of Marlin’s mother by discussing her death and reflecting on the positive memories associated with her. Because of the emotionally-charged content of “Tides of a Teardrop,” it is Mandolin Orange’s most intimate and artistically unique album yet.
“Golden Embers” is the leading song of the album, and Mandolin Orange dives headfirst into the multitude of feelings that arose in the wake of the death of Marlin’s mother. The song is a cry for help in which the singer-songwriter pleads with his father for assistance in grappling with their insurmountable loss. He sings: “Loss has no end, it binds to our connection / We don’t speak of it, we don’t even try / If you could help me to share the trouble / But you’ve got burned and then you, then you can help me”; it is impossible to not perceive the suffering and loneliness in Marlin’s raw voice.
“I think there was a lot of things that didn’t get talked about between me and my family, and especially me and my dad, so that was a song that I wrote to him trying to just kind of get all the bad feelings out of the way and shine some more positive light on positive memories of my mom,” Marlin said when talking about the inspiration behind “Golden Embers.” The lyrics also recall good memories and reflect a nostalgia for past times, times that can never be recaptured. Frantz’s harmonies give the song a surprisingly warm tone, yet they also exude an inescapable sorrow. Her fragile, clear voice weaves around Marlin’s, creating a harmony so smooth that there appears to be three voices singing rather than two.
The album ends with the contemplative song appropriately titled “Time We Made Time.” In the song, Marlin laments the busyness and fast-paced nature of life in the modern world. He credits this pace with the dissolution of close relationships between loved ones. In his smooth voice, the singer-songwriter pleads for time set aside with his significant other, time to be used simply for talking about their feelings. “Softly, tenderly / Using delicate voices / She’ll lean in close and draw me near / And once I have heard / It’s all I can hear / You may ramble, my darling / But I’ll always be there,” Marlin croons as Frantz seamlessly twines her harmonies through the melody. The stripped vocals and simplicity of the acoustic guitar give “Time We Made Time” a vulnerability that is characteristic of Mandolin Orange’s sound. The song leaves the listener with a longing for intimacy and simpler times.
Although the group defines themselves as a folk/Americana band, the Mandolin Orange draws musical inspiration from a variety of genres. The North Carolina natives were deeply influenced by bluegrass, classic country, indie and folk music, which makes their sound uniquely complex and allows them to broach an infinite amount of subjects in their lyrics. Marlin’s talent for storytelling combined with his virtuosity on the mandolin gives Mandolin Orange’s music a profound nostalgic quality. Frantz’s beautiful voice and her mastery of the guitar and fiddle is reminiscent of old Appalachian folk music. Combined, the duo’s many talents produce music that invites the listener into an intimate conversation, but at the same time exudes a mysteriousness that keeps one coming back for more.