At first listen, Mandolin Orange seems like the ultimate in low-key straightforwardness. The Chapel Hill duo’s records sound like Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz sitting around singing as the spirit moves them; and that’s pretty much exactly how they made the new Mandolin Orange album “Such Jubilee” (Yep Roc Records), the release of which they’ll mark with a Saturday night hometown show.
“When it comes to recording, we’ll basically go into the studio and just sit down and sing without planning too much ahead of time,” says Marlin. “And we like to take that vibe of initial tracking and see where it takes us. Until you hear what it sounds like coming through the speaker, you don’t know how it will come down.”
“For better or worse, we’ve never really done demos,” adds Frantz. “We’ve attempted them and we just can’t because we’re so all-or-nothing in the studio. Either we’re really recording or we’re really not, but we don’t lay it all out ahead of time. We’ll track every song live while facing each other and then decide what other stuff to layer on to flesh it out while maintaining that feel of sitting there playing.”
It’s a casual approach, and “Such Jubilee” sounds as effortless as you’d expect. Frantz and Marlin are frequently compared to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, another duo whose music is both spare and evocative, but Mandolin Orange projects more immediacy and warmth. Marlin’s drawl rolls along at an easy-going amble, punctuated by a touch more insistence from Frantz. Distinct as their voices are, they still intertwine beautifully when they harmonize.
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Biblical, lyrical imagery
Between the placid sonics and some of the signifiers – most notably the titles and some of the subject matter of both “Such Jubilee” and its equally fine 2013 predecessor, “This Side of Jordan” – it’s easy to get the wrong idea as far as religion. One couplet on the new album’s “The Wrecking Ball” goes, “I’ve just seen that rock of ages/I’ve just held my savior’s hand.”
But the key to that song is the following line: “We danced on the water my head on her shoulder, she swore to never let me fall.” It’s one of the sweetest devotional love songs in recent memory, a song they sing to each other.
“That song’s more about finding a companion you can lean on to be your rock, not necessarily a higher power,” says Marlin. “A lot of the imagery I write with is biblical, but it’s meant to portray a different idea. And, uh, not everybody likes it.”
Oh really? Marlin and Frantz both laugh.
“In Denver, a guy actually got offended when he asked if we ever went to church and I said no,” Marlin says. “I told him it’s all good and he said, ‘No, it’s not’ and walked away. That was actually kind of fun, that he’d gotten so invested in what we were doing that we offended him. A weird kind of praise, almost.”
“The religious content is semi-intentional, but not in a church-going way,” says Frantz. “There does seem to be a contingent of church-going people who really identify with our music, and that’s fine. Once you put songs out there, you have to be OK with people taking what they want from them even if it’s not what we meant. But we’re not gonna apologize for it, either.”
Expressions of love
In a similar vein is “Hey Adam” from the “Jordan” album. Yes, it’s about Adam from the Garden of Eden – but reimagined as a gay man struggling to keep his secret.
“If it ain’t fear that holds us
It’s fear that tears us down,
Down and I have come to tell you now
That our Father loves you always.”
Marlin wrote “Hey Adam” after the 2012 marriage amendment passed in North Carolina. It’s led to some interesting post-show conversations, like one at a Florida house concert with a pastor who loved the idea of the song.
“That line about ‘our Father loves you always’ is meant to say that no God ever wants to hinder someone’s happiness,” says Frantz. “But people can take whatever meaning they want. We’re not particularly active, probably not as much as we should be. You don’t want to alienate people who like your music, but we don’t want to censor ourselves, either. We have a duty to use our voices to express what we believe, which can be kind of tricky – especially in the folk and bluegrass world, where you can run into a lot of … well, not open-mindedness. But we’ve gotten a lot of cool feedback about that song; like, ‘I’m 19 and I’m gay and I also love folk music. So it means so much that you guys have made it communicating what you do.’”