Water Hymns

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Wisconsin's NoahJohn has two nearly perfect albums of biting Americana to its credit, so this third release would seem to be a telling moment in the band's progression. As NoahJohn has risen from Midwestern obscurity to tour Europe and gain considerable allies, the bandmembers could be excused for incorporating more immediately accessible qualities into their mix to capitalize on their newfound opportunities. Impressively, they've resisted that temptation and produced what might be their most singularly minded and artistically stubborn release, a work of absolutely eerie resonance and dour elegance. Their work cut out for them with the dizzyingly brilliant Had a Burning setting the artistic bar almost inconceivably high, it's somewhat refreshing that they have in no way attempted to repeat that album's glorious sprawl or caustic thematic bent, instead exchanging the former's sonic squall for creepily meditative arrangements and droning moodiness. Still, Carl Johns' penchant for disturbingly visual imagery and startling storytelling remains fully intact, and what the album sacrifices for singularity of mood and textural cohesiveness it makes up for with musical experimentation and thematic depth. In fact, with the album's more deliberate pace, it's hard to keep yourself from reading ahead in the liner notes to see what happens to the cast of invalids and drowned lovers. To be sure, the album is the least accessible in the NoahJohn catalog, requiring repeated listens to reveal the nuance and subtlety in the arrangements and narratives, with certain tracks such as the fairly standard country-rock of "Two Members," the transcendentally beautiful "First Communion," and the darkly graceful "Faerie Wings" ranking among the most poignant in the band's canon. But what will linger with the listener most is the profoundly haunting quality of the songs themselves, as the moaning viola and nearly gratuitous use of singing saw allow the listener to fully inhabit the shadowy, yet strangely alluring, world created in their music. Overall, it may not be the breakthrough that would have been expected of NoahJohn, but Water Hymns is another undeniable triumph for the group.

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