Pillar of Na

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Almost three years after Such Things comes Saintseneca's fourth album, Pillar of Na. Whereas the former was the outfit's first to feature drums (courtesy of Matthew O'Conke), here they've been fully integrated into bandleader Zac Little's ever-expanding aesthetic. Such Things also offered Saintseneca's initial flirtation with indie rock, but here it's a formidable part of the color palette. However, Little hasn't abandoned his Northern Appalachian folk roots, the wheel on which his songs turn. With Mike Mogis producing, the lineup remains the same -- guitarist Steve Ciolek, keyboardist Jon Meador, and Mogis and Little on guitars and sundry instruments -- with the exception of new bassist Caeleigh Featherstone. Maryn Jones is here, credited as a vocalist. Selectively, Saintseneca employ a chamber group with strings, winds, and brass.

Pillar of Na is a compelling (though hardly straightforward) exercise in 21st century folk-rock with progressive, indie pop, and gospel elements threaded through its weave. With the exception of brief intro-opener "Circle Hymn" (which is indeed a referential hymn that recalls those of Little's youth as a preacher in church), the rest is an exercise in genre-melding. His songs are loosely linked around the theme of human memory: how it informs and fools, blurs and illuminates our lives. "Feverer" commences with Mellotrons, reverbed snares, slide guitar, and synths. The refrain's infectious hook is juxtaposed against a sparser verse arranged for acoustic guitar and bass, with Little joined by Jones and Featherstone in gorgeous three-part harmony commingling near the song's anthemic climax. "Beast in the Garden" is an ornate chamber pop frame for some of Little's poetic lyrics: "In the valley of milk and honey/I want a cup overunning/Make my liquor a little less bitter...." Twelve-string mandolas and spinning Mellotrons give way to strummed acoustic and electric guitars accented by floor toms. The nod to Celtic folk is underscored by bouzoukis, mandolins, drums, and bass, complemented by an urgent rock hook and loads of reverb.

The mournful, shuffling folk in "Moon Barks at the Dog" is adorned in pillowy instrumentation that contrasts sharply with Little's edgy lyrics simultaneously engaging poignancy and sarcastic humor. The nearly pastoral swell of Mellotron and girl-group backing vocals in "Frostbiter" reflects a time slip, as the past betrays a bittersweet indulgence and melancholy. This all sets up the title-track finale: an eight-and-a-half-minute tour de force where the British Isles folk tradition meets progressive pop; Little and company take us through Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" and a morphing of Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" ("We all must get stoned...") amid swirling, dramatic indie rock that carries the story before an a cappella reprise of "Circle Hymn" turns the listener back in on herself. This suite-like track is the pinnacle of Saintseneca's collective imagination and wildly creative musicianship. In sum, Pillar of Na delivers in full on the expansive promise hinted at on their previous albums.

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