Make Up Your Mind: River Whyless’ “Kindness, A Rebel”

River Whyless' 2018 album

USFWS Mountain Prairie

River Whyless' 2018 album "Kindess, A Rebel" features strong instrumentals and poignant lyrics.

Sophia Kontos, Online Editor-in-Chief

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Here’s what qualifies Online Editor-in-Chief Sophia Kontos to write about music: she can’t go 10 minutes without using Spotify, she devotedly follows NPR Music and she loves her headphones more than just about anything else. With these (really impressive) credentials, she will share her opinions about under-the-radar and alternative artists on her column “Make Up Your Mind,” named after one of her favorite Florence + the Machine songs. 

I will be forever grateful for NPR Music. There is no better resource for finding under-the-radar musical gems—like River Whyless’ 2018 album Kindness, A Rebel.

I’d never heard of folk band River Whyless until Bob Boilen, the genius behind Tiny Desk concerts and All Songs Considered, posted about their DC concert on his Instagram. Since Boilen is the person I trust the most when it comes to music recommendations, I decided to check out the band and their latest album.

Thirty-eight minutes later, I was hooked on River Whyless’ mix of mellow and energetic music. While the tempo and vibe showcase huge range across the album, it still feels cohesive. The album flows the way that summer moves into fall: a few weeks of rain (“All of My Friends,” “Born in the Right Country”), the interspersal of unexpectedly sunny and hot days (“Van Dyke Brown,” “The Feeling of Freedom”) with mild, breezy days (“Motel 6”) and ultimately the arrival of crisp fall weather (“Mama Take Your Time”).

Musically, the album builds on solid beats from drummer Alex McWalters. The drums drive the songs forward, sometimes dropping away for brief moments of calm before building the energy and volume back up (see “Van Dyke Brown”). Layering on top of the drumming, bassist Daniel Shearin and guitarist Ryan O’Keefe add a folskly feel and bouncy rhythms. Haili Anderson colors some of the songs with her commanding violin playing.

To be able to truly explain the spectrum that this album encompasses, let’s look at “The Feeling of Freedom” versus “War is Kind”:

“The Feeling of Freedom” starts out with rhythmic bass playing and a ‘whoop,’ and it only picks up from there. The drumming becomes faster and more intense, the bass comes back to the forefront and additional percussion builds. Eventually, the song reaches its climax with a high-pitched scream and impossibly fast violin playing. Then, two and a half minutes later, the madness is over, only to be replaced with a light melody line and the gentle strumming that opens “War is Kind,” the only song without any percussion. Instead, it highlights the band’s harmonies and O’Keefe’s guitar, putting emphasis on their simple, yet profound lyrics: “Widow, now he is gone / And how you long for him / And see him now in your son / Ah, but you can’t believe your eyes as we go blind again.”

While those songs feature wildly different instrumentals, both songs showcase the band’s poignant lyrics. Their lyrics stare down both national and deeply personal problems. “Born in the Right Country” takes on the current American political landscape: “Manufactured truth is easy to sell / When you own the factory / And you own the hearts of the clientele.” Meanwhile, “Another Sh***y Party” looks at what it feels like to live in the midst of this landscape, what it means for people that try to just live yet feel suffocated: “I don’t know how to be young and free like that girl on the table / I’m not able to dance like I don’t know the world’s changin’ fast.” On either scale, the album comments on this moment in American history in a brutally honest way.

As a whole, this album is brilliant, peppered with cozy harmonies, foot-tapping beats and intimate lyrics. By weaving their instrumental talents with their warm singing, River Whyless created an album that I wish I could listen to for the first time again and again.

Best song: “All of My Friends”

Best moment: “Darkness in Mind” 0:14

Best lyric: “From a dream I’m waking up / For the first time / I’m terrified of waking up alone” from “Motel 6”

Rating: 5/5

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