Earnest, aching acoustic music — why, it's the new emo! Who needs electric guitars when you have banjos and heartfelt harmonies? The tender, pastoral strains of indie-folk bands like the River Monks offer a relaxing antidote to a smartphone-mediated world.
Rising from the heartland, the Iowa outfit has grown from a trio to a (sometime) sextet since their 2011 debut Jovials. Its follow-up, the just-released Home Is the House, takes a broad step forward. It's bigger, not just in membership, but its spaciousness and sound.
"We definitely wanted to expand the sound to see how far we can get," says singer/guitarist Ryan Stier. "We added a couple members since the first album, so we're able to better experiment with wherever we want to take the music."
The band's origins go back to high school when Stier learned guitar so he could be in a band with his friend Nicholas Frampton (who's now the River Monks' producer and occasional touring member). Stier went on to study music in college, where he got a degree in classical guitar. He's since applied that instrument's delicacy and subtle craft to the Monks' acoustic folk-pop, imbuing it with supple vibrancy.
"Classical's one of the most refined and one of the most complicated ways to play guitar, so it forced me to learn how to really use my hands and make them work together," he says. "With the River Monks there's definitely been a lot of fingerpicking which I prefer to strumming and a lot of the sound actually comes from that."
From the start, harmonies were an essential element. They'd been listening to a lot of Good Old War and admired the band's frequent three-part harmonies. Fleet Foxes' sound is another touchstone that informs the spooky, otherworldly feel of some songs. That comes out even more in their sophomore album's moody undertones.
"It's quite a bit darker," says Stier of Home Is the House. "What is home really? Sometimes that's a happy thing and sometimes that's a solemn thing. So there are definitely some mood swings on the album."
Last month the River Monks released their very first video. Set to the group's soaring folk anthem, "Beasts," the sweet-hearted video finds Stier running around in a costume with a lion snout and a body of loose red and blue fabric straps that flap in the wind like fur. He races through the city and into the woods over lilting fingerpicked melodies, until he encounters a similarly clad counterpart in the video's final frames.
"It took me three or four weeks to make those costumes, and then we went out on the hottest day of the summer, of course, wearing these really heavy costumes. It was really hot, but it was a lot of fun and I think it turned out great."
Meanwhile, the group has been touring a lot over the last couple years, and one of the greatest challenges has been reproducing the album's close harmonies live. When they do, it takes the songs to another level. But Stier won't lie — they're not perfect.
"It's not necessarily like we're always locked in," he admits. "You're playing in different venues, different sizes of rooms with different crowds, so the sound you're hearing is different every single night. But it's a lot of fun to all be singing at once, and that's why we do it."