The American cultural landscape is truly one of the world’s most vast and colourful. Drive for an hour or two in any direction from any given starting point and see the fashion, dialect and socio-economic outlook seem to change exponentially before you even have time to notice. Keenly aware of the rich musical tapestry of their homeland and comprising of members from both Baton Rouge Louisiana (about an hour west of New Orleans) and Mobile Alabama, bluegrass quartet The Mulligan Brothers decamped from their home base of Mobile for the sleepy hipster-haven of Portland Oregon for their sophomore release; the aptly titled Via Portland. A largely live-in-the-studio affair showcasing their deft ability in crafting richly textured heartland folk tunes, Via Portland’s 11 tracks perfectly marry the band’s southern roots with a newfound northwestern pop sensibility.
The creamy wall of harmony that opens first track Wait For Me has a distinct Bon Iver kind of vibe to it, bolstered by sweeping dynamics and a lilting violin that beautifully darts and weaves around frontman Ross Newell’s yearning vocals. The flag of parochial folksiness inherent in most of Portland’s musical output (Think The Decemberists or any number of Portlandia’s on-point parody characters) is proudly flown on City Full of Streets and its no-frills immediacy makes it all the more accessible in its quaintness. There’s also a certain sentimentality to I Don’t Want To Know which winds up sounding halfway between a a flat tire on Morrisey’s tourbus somewhere on the Oklahoma border and the most twee overtones of the finest moments of neighbor-state Washington’s Death Cab For Cutie.
The borderline Celtic jig of Bad Idea has nods to some of the early-‘70s’ finest songwriters like James Taylor or Neil Young’s After The Goldrush/Harvest one-two punch with its swinging momentum and lush 3-part harmonies before the tender fragility of Calamine blooms slowly with attack-piano and haunting cello into a gorgeously melancholy climax. The strident mandolin is a great addition to So Are You, giving it a nice Led Zeppelin III feel that segues into the swampy bayou dirge of the Dave Matthews-esque blues of Let Them Ring.
The obligatory “too-much-touring” song Road That Leads Me Home is in danger of bordering a little close on the schmaltzy side if not for the Mulligans’ sugary-sweet harmonies and the earnestness of Run On Ahead is spared the same fate by Newell’s sublime, evocative delivery. Louise is about as barnstorming a love-ballad as you would ever hope to hear before the album draws to a carousing close with the bustling down-home waltz of Not Always What It Seems.
Overall, Via Portland is a pretty great example of two worlds colliding. The Mulligans’ legitimate southern roots mesh with the dreary folk vibe of Portland in a way that expertly preserves the best aspects of both sensibilities. The immediacy of the live performances is palpable and when treated with the silky harmonies upon which the band are certain to make a name for themselves, each song comes together with a simultaneous subtlety and drive that truly sets The Mulligan Brothers apart from their contemporaries.