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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

Mountain Man – Made the Harbor – Album Review

Album from a female vocal trio rooted in Americana, mastering a classic musical form

Written by Ian Steadman

I’m not the best person to be covering the arts events of this summer, healing taking place at a smattering of festivals across the UK. The reason for this is quite simple; I have never been to a festival. This is usually when someone drops a plate, another person screams and a cat yowls whilst an errant piece of tumbleweed dances down the road.
Alright, I haven’t been to a festival! I have a total and utter phobia of insects, I can’t sleep well at the best of times and the idea of being zipped into a stuffy hot tent with the floor as my mattress has never had much appeal to me. Plus all the mud and the hygiene issues of finding a nice lavatory. But this year, one name has sung it’s siren call. The power of this one name has rendered me ebaying portable mosquito nets and stocking up on wetwipes. No, it’s not one of those musician types, for whom I can hear on the noisebox at any time I please, it is a man. A man who changed my life. Brett Easton Ellis. When I saw his name on the Latitude Literary Area line-up, I choked half to death on my hobnob (that’s not an allegory). The man behind Less Than Zero, one of my favourite books, and American Psycho (another favourite book) is flying over from his elusive bunker somewhere in New York, to grace the filthy muddy bastards of Latitude with his presence? Inconceivable. Yet, I don’t think they’d lie about a thing like that. Ergo, I must go. Like a sacrificial festival virgin to a vengeful insect fuelled Aztec God, I must go. Sebastian Faulks and Julie Burchill are also included in the programme, but my eye stopped roaming at Ellis, and thus my summer has been made.

Anyway, the point of this all, is to focus on the Arty side of these godforsaken pagan events. Evidently, I’m not one who has much knowledge about all of this, but I’ve certainly been doing my homework since. Latitude is one of the best Arts forward festivals in the UK, with a film, poetry, literary and theatre arenas to tickle all sorts of fancy’s alongside the usual barbaric muck and ruckus that I also imagine goes on. And also, there’s The Secret Garden Party.


Upon checking out the website for Secret Garden Party, I immediately found myself sold on the idea of going to a magical little wonderland to moot about and have a lovely time free of bugs and dirt. Also, the art line up is pretty fantastical. The Never-Ever Land Theatre has a rotisserie of performers and theatrics from companies such as MOD theatre and Toulson and Harvey. The Artful Badger area includes ‘shamanic journeys, drumming and whittling’ as part of the agenda.

I’m not the best person to be covering the arts events of this summer, about it taking place at a smattering of festivals across the UK. The reason for this is quite simple; I have never been to a festival. This is usually when someone drops a plate, viagra 40mg another person screams and a cat yowls whilst an errant piece of tumbleweed dances down the road.
Alright, I haven’t been to a festival! I have a total and utter phobia of insects, I can’t sleep well at the best of times and the idea of being zipped into a stuffy hot tent with the floor as my mattress has never had much appeal to me. Plus all the mud and the hygiene issues of finding a nice lavatory. But this year, one name has sung it’s siren call. The power of this one name has rendered me ebaying portable mosquito nets and stocking up on wetwipes. No, it’s not one of those musician types, for whom I can hear on the noisebox at any time I please, it is a man. A man who changed my life. Brett Easton Ellis. When I saw his name on the Latitude Literary Area line-up, I choked half to death on my hobnob (that’s not an allegory). The man behind Less Than Zero, one of my favourite books, and American Psycho (another favourite book) is flying over from his elusive bunker somewhere in New York, to grace the filthy muddy bastards of Latitude with his presence? Inconceivable. Yet, I don’t think they’d lie about a thing like that. Ergo, I must go. Like a sacrificial festival virgin to a vengeful insect fuelled Aztec God, I must go. Sebastian Faulks and Julie Burchill are also included in the programme, but my eye stopped roaming at Ellis, and thus my summer has been made.

Anyway, the point of this all, is to focus on the Arty side of these godforsaken pagan events. Evidently, I’m not one who has much knowledge about all of this, but I’ve certainly been doing my homework since. Latitude is one of the best Arts forward festivals in the UK, with a film, poetry, literary and theatre arenas to tickle all sorts of fancy’s alongside the usual barbaric muck and ruckus that I also imagine goes on. And also, there’s The Secret Garden Party.


Upon checking out the website for Secret Garden Party, I immediately found myself sold on the idea of going to a magical little wonderland to moot about and have a lovely time free of bugs and dirt. Also, the art line up is pretty fantastical. The Never-Ever Land Theatre has a rotisserie of performers and theatrics from companies such as MOD theatre and Toulson and Harvey. The Artful Badger area includes ‘shamanic journeys, drumming and whittling’ as part of the agenda.

You’d think that the internet would offer up the number of annual visitors to US National Parks more easily. I was hoping to start this post by comparing the resurgence of bluegrass harmonies in American popular music to the numbers of tourists traipsing across the Blue Ridge Mountains that feature in so many of those songs, this web in the hope of finding some evidence of some wider cultural trend. All I can do instead is blame Fleet Foxes for this and move on.

Three girls from different parts of the United States met at Bennington College in Vermont and, click discovering that they shared both a fondness for traditional music forms and a cracking sets of pipes, about it formed Mountain Man. The mountain man is an American archetype – the rugged individualist hunting for furs on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, a loner content to spend winter after winter beneath the boughs of some tree pregnant with snow and beside a partially-frozen river than trickles down towards the orange groves by the coast. With regards to facial hair, neither Molly, Amelia, nor Alexandra possess any; the name is otherwise perfect as an indicator of what it is that they do and what it is that they’re going to sing about. Made the Harbor could well have been recorded a full 80 years ago – it opens with ‘Buffalo’, and a repeated choral chant of, “…And the mighty Mississippi River swills/follow, follow, follow, follow the buffalo/in my eyes I saw the great black hills.” Subject matter does not vary greatly thereafter.

Very little of this album relies upon instrumentation. There’s occasionally an acoustic guitar, but it’s not a centrepiece and the focus is always on the harmonies. Oh, what sweet harmonies. Remember how O Brother, Where Are Thou? managed to wake a dormant appreciation for good vocals in pretty much everyone through simply showing three southern ladies washing their particulars in a rural river while singing old gospel standards? There is something so incredibly real about that, and about this; it feels like something that should be done far more often than it is. The girls of Mountain Man haven’t got extraordinary voices, but that isn’t the point. It’s the warmth that comes from three very natural and unpretentious vocal lines coming together into one new beast. How they sound together is almost more important than what it is that’s being sang, though interestingly the topics covered very much mirror the nostalgia in the sound.

Or, well, perhaps not every song (I almost said ‘track’ there, but that didn’t feel right). Not the bits about how, “the sweat will roll down our backs,” on ‘Animal Tracks’, a song that draws on animal metaphors to describe their sexual desires in a way that’s presumably as explicit as they’re willing to go without sacrificing their aesthetic. There would be something intensely strange and disagreeable about these three girls singing about sex in a straightforward way, although their obtuse alternative is pretty intriguing.

That in itself is a pretty strange thing, though, right? Because Mountain Man sing in such an incredibly retrograde manner (they even recorded these songs in, “an abandoned factory from the turn of the 20th Century,” according to their official back story) it’s almost making me take on a retrograde attitude towards what they could acceptably sing about. Whilst modern technology is never referenced, nor modern lifestyles, the issues are often strikingly modern. “Can’t you understand that I’m trying to be a good woman?/Let me go…” one of them pleads on ‘Soft Skin’; independence in women isn’t some post-war thing, true (there are lots of female blues artists who could be pointed at here as evidence), but it’s a very specific musical niche that Mountain Man occupy here, one that’s not associated with aspects of American culture do have such a tradition.

For example: ‘Babylon’ is an old standard, Psalm 137, but a glorious version sang in rounds that recaptures a lot of the despair of the piece that’s often left out by other artists. For anyone who hasn’t heard it, I strongly urge you to seek out Nick Cave’s ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song’, a lecture he gave on the nature of love in songwriting and its need to feed off of powerful feelings of regret, longing and nostalgia. He deals with Psalm 137 at one point during a general screed on the emotive power of the Old Testament and its general unpleasantness; for those unfamiliar, the psalm is a lament by the people of Israel at the loss of their homeland to the rulers of Babylon, who demand that their captives sing for them the songs of Zion. Amongst the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the children of Israel ask their god for permission to seize the infants of Babylon and, “dash them against the rocks.” It’s a vivid image, it’s a vulgar image, and it’s an extreme image. Mountain Man are not concentrating on the same things as Nick Cave, however, and their version of ‘Babylon’ focuses entirely on the first verse, the bit about sitting by the river and weeping. It’s sung with conviction, but that is nonetheless all that they sing about, and it’s exactly the same kind of selective reading of the Bible that constitutes much of southern American evangelism. The blow is softened, and the focus is on the sadness and not the (now unfashionable) anger. Blues wouldn’t hold back here, but Mountain Man is rooted in Americana that is far more hung-up on Lutheran issues.

The girls of Mountain Man have created a gorgeous album, a collection of songs that conjure up as much blue-tinge and rolling mist as you could wish for. But it’s not as modern as it thinks it is – these songs are as coy as if they had been sung by these girls’ great-grandmothers, and it should be approached as such. It’s an album of vocal beauty that attempts to bring an old style into the modern era, but the end product is cannot escape those firm roots that have been nurtured so carefully.

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