Nations by the River

Holes in the Valley

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Outside of Australia, too few music enthusiasts have had the pleasure of hearing the deftly plundered songsmithing of the Sleepy Jackson, Gelbison, and Old Man River. In their homeland, these bands enjoy high respect and a high profile to boot. Outside of the big backyard, though, they seem almost lost in a haystack. When these three potent bands decided to share some members for a grand side project, the Australian press yelled "Super group!," while the rest of the world mumbled "Who?" The side project in question is Nations by the River, consisting of the Sleepy Jackson's main provocateur, Luke Steele, brothers Edo and Nadav Kahn from Gelbison, and Ohad Rein of Old Man River fame. Conceptualized during a 2003 Sleepys/Gelbison joint tour, the band coalesced under the boys' mutual love for country and folk music, and provided a platform for them to explore a simpler, stripped-down version of the high-and-lonesome (and tastefully psychedelic) sounds they were already creating in their established groups. Listening to the albums from their antecedent bands, it is possible to get an idea of the talent present here, but not much insight into what really makes Nations tick (as the new band has an identity all its own). The pure and Spartan beauty of Nations' debut album, Holes in the Valley, provides high contrast to the kitchen-sink-inclusive pastiche of the Sleepy Jackson's dense recordings, as well as the folk-tronic/Americana experimentations of Gelbison, but that simplicity doesn't come at the expense of clever songwriting or memorable hooks. Holes in the Valley is a flowing, solid effort throughout its 12-song stretch, even with dark pauses like "Heroin" (not the Lou Reed tune) perforating the lineup. Nations by the River are haunting when they're hurting (the searching "Kids World" or the heart-wrenching "Lovers") and rousing when they're carousing (the jubilant "We Dance Every Day"), but the manic mood swings never send the album off of its tracks completely and the whole thing has an overall feeling of purpose and place. Full of unadorned harmonies and enigmatic instrumental textures, the album links the traditions of the past with the innovations of the future via a strong songwriting sense of the present. If this is a "one-off" collaboration, it will stand well enough on its own as a sepia-stained document of where the guys were (emotionally and artistically) when they made the record. If it is just the beginning of a long line of Nations projects, then it makes for one helluva launching pad for further explorations of Nations by the River's earnest brand of music-making.

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