The Hills & The Rivers’

BANDCAMP: https://thehillsandtherivers.bandcamp.com/

A pastoral string arrangement slowly opens the rustic gates that protect the ancient gardens where singer/songwriters have come to craft and cultivate their sound for centuries in just the first few notes of The Hills & The Rivers’ The Fool and The Magician. First we get to meet the eponymous “The Fool” as the intro track fades away, and this fool comes with a swinging, jovially rollicking backing band to support his foolish notions and meditations. It’s a great primer to get us in the mood to really swing when “The Leap” takes us strutting down a cobblestone road and deep into the shires of a 19th century English folk-inspired beat. Our swagger is interrupted with feverish change in tempo halfway through the song though, and suddenly we’re galloping at a brisk pace, running after whatever mysterious evil could be catching up to us as we cut around every turn. Where are The Hills & The Rivers literally taking us? Their mischievous confidence is one part exciting and another part gravely intimidating, but nowhere here do we feel disconnected from the band and their wonderfully gripping storytelling.

The third song of The Fool and The Magician, “The Road,” continues many of the same thematic elements from the first couple of folky jams, but showcases much more delicately woven vocals that add an entirely different layer of eccentricity to this album’s already strikingly volatile nimbleness. “Gotta Get My Thrill” gets our adrenaline pumping again in an old fashioned spinning breakdown that inspires thrilling tension that makes the spellbinding draw of this record all the more impossible to resist. We take a brief intermission trip into acapella territory with “Mmbop” before descending into the captivating ballad “Middle Garden,” which features some of the most moving and somber guitar play I’ve had the privilege of listening to this year. Vocals remind me a little of Bon Ivar but a lot less pompous. There’s a connection between the artist and the instrument, and that cord extends from there out to the audience, and in my third wave impression as an audience member, the connection between these talented artists and their mediums in utterly ethereal and something of the heavens.

“The Hawk and the Dove” flips the lights back on for a second and sort of helps us transition to the progressively constructed “The Valley” which looms forebodingly over the concluding track “The Magician” like a thick black cloud obscuring the view of a gorgeous mountainside off in the distance. In “The Valley” we see just how inexplicably mature and reflective The Hills & The Rivers can get when they’re allowed to juxtapose their inviting bright side against their seductively dark side. What we get as a result is a straight up anthem, a signature song if you will, that makes this entire album worth a listen all by itself. “The Magician” brings things to a poignant end with chiming guitar parts that march us into the eithers with a bluesy tempo that is a refreshing moment to end things on. When we’re finished, only one thing is for certain; this band knows how to make a truly complex, compelling piece of music when they’re in the studio.

Sebastian Cole