Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Album Review: Campfire OK - When You Have Arrived

Album Rating: A-
Some of the best music requires a little waiting. With each listen it seeps into you, fated to soon become an ineffable part of your identity. You never know it when it’s happening, of course, but for some reason you go back time after time, possessed by an instinct of greatness—before finally a switch flips in your head and, for the first time, you get it. I know this feeling well because it’s what I felt my sixth or seventh time listening to When You Have Arrived, the sophomore album from Seattle folk-rock band Campfire OK. More than almost any other album this year, it crackles with creativity and warmth, and even if that won’t win it any Grammys the experience is still remarkably fresh.

On first listen, the banjos and sing-along choruses make it easy to pigeonhole Campfire OK as another one of Mumford’s sons (ever heard of the morning-after pill, Marcus?), but the band has a great deal of fun tinkering with different elements of folk music and integrating them into other contexts. “2&3” is an intriguing blend of psychedelic rock and folk, with piano plinks and banjo plucks warbling as if both instruments are underwater and ghostly echoes haunting the fringes of the otherwise upbeat chorus—spooky, but warm. “My Dear Friends,” in contrast, is more middle-of-the-line folk rock with the chipper banjo melody leading the way, but the rumblin’ swing beats keep things from getting too lightweight. Standouts include “Fireworks At Night,” a fast-paced take on punk-rock that’s sure to be a crowdpleaser, and the rousing “Whereabouts,” a subtler take on The Dear Hunter’s gutsy, grand highway rock with its luminescent electronic keys, ever-so-slightly cracked harmonies and layered orchestral parts.

Campfire OK also has a winning frontman in Mychal Cohen, whose subdued, powerful presence anchors When You Have Arrived. One of the most refreshing parts of his performance is his downbeat style, underplaying his feelings in order to better express them. On “2&3” he declares “I want a part of everyone,” but his subdued delivery of the line betrays a little hurt. “New Tradition” may be a song about opening up to change, but instead of sounding hopeful Cohen almost sounds weary, like he’s hit a floor and the only way out is up. Cohen’s willingness to temper his emotions is a refreshing contrast to the Hallmark happiness of certain other folk outfits, and the focus sharpens both his highs and lows. It’s thanks to the emotional honesty of his performance that the album often touches on something genuinely uplifting.

Though When You Have Arrived doesn’t arrive fully-formed (its lack of an central theme, though hardly a flaw, sometimes makes it difficult to follow), its title track does, serving as a great summation of why this is a band to keep an eye on. At its beginning, subdued piano chords and boisterous big-band beats foreshadow a showdown before Cohen comes in with a play-by-play narrative of a break-in that takes a twisted turn when he asks his would-be victim a couple of unexpected questions in the chorus: “Tell me what it’s like to rise / Tell me how it feels to be admired / And tell me how you know when you’ve arrived.” Sad words, but near the track’s apex the contemplation makes way for a trumpet call, melody soaring sky-high despite the weight of the drums collapsing in on each other—an apocalyptic moment that still points to better things to come in Campfire OK’s future. It takes something special for any band to live up to an oath that massive. I think this one’s got it.

Artist Website

Track Listing
1. 2&3
2. My Dear Friends
3. Wishing You The Best
4. Fireworks At Night
5. New Tradition
6. Pretty And Kind
7. Whereabouts
8. Orange Grove
9. Wooden Queen (feat. Melodie Knight)
10. When You Have Arrived
11. Smoke Out Your Eyes (feat. Melodie Knight)
12. Our Hearts Beat Light (To An Orange Grove)

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