If quiet is the new loud, then Carrboro-based, unplugged-Americana duo Mandolin Orange bludgeons your ears bloody. On the debut full-length from Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, low-key moments dominate, and there’s room between notes to drive a semi or a wagon train through, depending on the song’s particular vintage.
But quiet isn’t silence, the latter a state that’s the bane of the narrator’s long-haul existence in the Townes Van Zandt-channeling opener “These Old Wheels.” “Silence is golden, some may say, some may say,” he pleads. “Well, I say it’s an aimless time to kill.” Nope, quiet is an art. It’s layering and unlayering acoustic instrumentsand the occasional electric guitar or organand figuring out when to trail rhythm guitar with Frantz’s fiddle, when to pair finger-picked guitars, when to call on a mandolin or snare drum. It’s the ability to cast and recast voices. Marlin’s conversational vocals are usually out front, with Frantz’s knowing harmonies exactly where they need to be. Occasionally, the pair sings together, forming a third voice, while “Your Cryin’ Eyes” and “Night Owl” offer lovely leads from Frantz. And it’s determining the optimal, rustic binding for Marlin’s words, whether he’s using nature as metaphor (“Night Owl” and “Wee Bird”), crafting a prairie hymn (“A Thousand Amen,” which basks in the glorious assonance of the line “Jesus feed us”) or capturing the mood of waiting on the right girl (“One More Down”).
Mandolin Orange’s mastery of the hushed arts works on each of the dozen songs here, but one earns special notice. “Easy” is the story of death in three acts: the looming, the burying and the reckoning. And its harmonies, its balanced interplay between Marlin’s electric and Frantz’s rhythm guitar, its story interestingly told and its obviously well-considered execution represent everything that’s so splendid about Quiet Little Room. Shouting forces distance and even leads to building walls. Whispering gets people to lean in, real close.