Watchhouse: Watchhouse | [Tiptoe Tiger Music/Thirty Tigers; August 13]

In 2009, using the name Mandolin Orange, the musicians Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin began to play music in the backyards and on the front porches of Carrboro.

In a warbly video from that time, the pair sit on an old green couch and harmonize to an adaptation of an Old English song. With Frantz on the violin and Marlin cradling his guitar, their knees turned toward each other, the harmony is keening, intuitive, and intimate.

In 2010, the duo released debut album Quiet Little Room, followed by 2011’s Haste Make/Hard Hearted Stranger, albums that held the warm appeal of an open door leading into a living room.

In 2013, they signed with prominent North Carolina label Yep Roc Records, a deal that opened its own door for Frantz and Marlin: four more albums, glowing national recognition alongside adoring regional reception, and years of nonstop touring followed. Still—even as Mandolin Orange ascended from front-porch performances to sold-out stadiums, expanding from duo to a band backing—intimacy has been its constant.

You’ll find that same intimacy in new album Watchhouse, out August 13 on Tiptoe Tiger Music/Thirty Tigers, with one significant new change: Mandolin Orange is no more. Instead, Frantz and Marlin announced in April that they would now make music under the name Watchhouse, a name drawn from a spot that Marlin frequented when he was young.

A name change is a bold move for any band, but especially for a band as entrenched in the roots scene as Mandolin Orange. By the time fifth studio album Tides of a Teardrop was released in 2019an album which reckoned, with a ruminative slow burn, with the early death of Marlin’s mother—they’d found niches performing both pared-down sets at the Governor’s Mansion and opening for the Avett Brothers at packed Red Rocks Amphitheater shows.

It seemed clear that they were forerunners in the Americana revival, and to many fans, the name Mandolin Orange is synonymous with North Carolina music (a pressure that comes with its own creative constraints). Changing up the name had, and has, a certain “Dylan goes electric” shock to it. Online, in message boards and in YouTube comments, you’ll find some detractors grumbling that the band has lost its magic.

But experiencing intimacy with a band also means being along for the ride. As Marlin and Frantz tell it, over the years they’d begun to experience a growing gap between the name they’d chosen when they were in their early twenties, and the creative purpose they’d begun to write toward as seasoned artists.

There was not, as Marlin says of the original naming, any “setting of intentions.” Now that has changed.

One overcast morning—the kind of humid, motionless August day that hangs like wet laundry on a line—the pair meet me at a park near their home in Chapel Hill. It’s the week before the U.N. climate change report is released, and the Delta variant lends a nervous friction to otherwise hopeful talk of an album rollout.

There’s a line in the Watchhouse song “Beautiful Flowers” that seems to speak to that restless tension, as it trickles planetary decline down to its particulars. In the song, lamenting a butterfly that has been crushed against a widow shield, Frantz gently croons, “The summertime blues, they’re burning red hot.” It’s one of the best lines on the album, landing with a perfect spark in 2021.

Wrestling with the future leads to talk of touring. Imagining it, Marlin says—speaking in his characteristic dry, unhurried voice—is like trying to focus on something with blurred vision, and “as much as you want to see it, it can’t ever quite come into focus.”

“I’m excited to go back to playing shows but there’s this weird, slight disconnect, where there’s a lot of apprehension in the crowd,” he says. “And I think, for us on stage, there is this looming presence of—well, for lack of a better word, death.”

“Damn it,” Frantz says. “We finally wrote an album that wasn’t about death, and here we are talking about it.”

But even if Watchhouse’s nine songs are filled with dark references—climate change looms large, as does a burgeoning culture of online meanness—the album is surprisingly hopeful. In late 2018, Frantz and Marlin became parents to a daughter, Ruby, and Watchhouse—which was recorded in a cabin in February 2020, right before the pandemic set in—yearns for a better world.

In “Upside Down,” Frantz sings, with sweet assurance, of the experience of meeting their newborn (“you’ve known me all your life / swear I’ve missed you all of mine / now you’re here I’ll always be right by your side”). It’s hard for a piece of art to not feel hopeful with that kind of protective yearning on the line. In that sense, Watchhouse can certainly be described as a parenthood album, but there are entry points for anyone who desires a better world.

As with Frantz and Marlin’s other harmonies, the songs on Watchhouse evoke the intimacy of working through a problem. But there’s also something fresh: a persistent, textured shimmering and droning with inflections of pop, a polish that likely comes from producer Josh Kaufman (Bonny Light Horseman), who has worked with bands like The National and Hiss Golden Messenger.

When they began recording, Kaufman told Frantz and Marlin to imagine they were making their first record. Watchhouse—which features drummer Joe Westerlund, guitarist Josh Oliver, and bassist Clint Mullican, with contributions from Kaufman and Dave Nelsonwas recorded before the band decided to rebrand, so what you hear on the album is not the sound of artists who know what they’ll be next. It’s the sound of artists figuring it out.

Frantz says that 2020 was one of the first times they’d been still, after a decade of relentless touring. As they took time at home—the park we’re sitting is one that they frequent with Ruby, where they often wade along the creek, skipping stones—it became evident that they needed to test a new vision.

A music video for a song on the new album, “New Star,” made a decade after the video on the green couch and directed by Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso, edges toward that vision, one which sounds both intimate and uninhibited. Frame after frame depicts people gathering, luminescent in the glow of birthday cake candles. Marlin and Frantz aren’t even in the video, until the last shot, but their confident voices steer the scenes, with Marlin singing: “At least we’re all here together / settled in for the winter / casting our lives, found a new star.”

“Finally releasing this album, it’s sort of this clean re-entry into the world,” Frantz says. “It just felt like a pressure cooker kind of feeling—that we can’t just go back to doing things the same way that we always did.”

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