A quaint strum here, an aggressive harmony there. Spun together out of fragmented melodies and broken emotions reimagined in lyrics, we find a bittersweet story to behold in the new album String Ladders from The Color Forty Nine that perhaps speaks to the fractures in alternative music, both self-created and aesthetically inevitable. In songs like the short and simple “Battling Down,” strings and passive vocals entwine to present us with a narrative that seems as distant as it does smothering in its most powerful moments, while other tracks like the instrument-heavy “What Would I Know” are more forceful and unforgivingly honest when it comes to making a statement, artistic or plain the same.
There are seemingly no two compositions quite alike in String Ladders, and yet spending time with the tracklist in its entirety doesn’t feel like a chore so much as it does an opportunity to understand the many layers of The Color Forty Nine. This is a band that the west coast indie music press has been head over heels for lately, and taking just a cursory glance at what they’ve done here makes it pretty obvious why they’re hearing praise from San Diego to Eureka and back this summer.
“Fly On” is perhaps the most brittle ballad of the latter half of String Ladders, but for what it lacks in string muscularity it makes up for in pure, haunting vocals. “Hold My Hand” is similarly breakable, but with one striking difference; the singing it features is by far the strongest element of its signature harmony.
There’s so much to be said about the influence of retro folk on the aesthetics of this material, but the actual sentiments of the music couldn’t be much further from the pastoral poetic content you might be thinking of when I merely mention the genre in an American context. The searching, the raw yearning if you will, of folk music is very present in this record’s best moments, from “Fly On” to “Another World,” though encapsulating it isn’t the innocence of an acoustic melodicism but instead the unapologetically grim demeanor of post-punk singer/songwriters more than a generation removed from present-day alternative music.
Whether it be the soaring Americana of an arresting “String Ladder” or the gothic moan of “I’m Going to Try,” The Color Forty Nine’s immersive sound in String Ladders is one of the more entrancing experiences I think audiophiles are going to come across this season, regardless of genre. Though their reputation centers on the impact they’ve had on the southern California music circuit, I can see this San Diego-based outfit generating a lot of fresh buzz outside of the west coast demographic, largely thanks to the lack of originality among their alternative/folk peers in 2021.
Others might be interested in reliving the past pleasantries of hipster-era acoustic music, but if there’s one group that knows how to couple the retro with the modern properly, I think it should be said that The Color Forty Nine is definitely that group for their scene.