From the first minute of the first song off of Chief’s second full length, Modern Rituals, there’s a warm, welcoming tone difficult to duplicate with producers in a test tube studio replication. In some ways, this is drawn from the heart of folk music; communal, hospitable and familiar territory. But don’t forget a recently saturated folk music scene in the last half decade has brought a lot more pedestrian tones to the more mainstream folk music, often leading to a slow, steady transition from artistic minimalism and creative sparsity to just plain boring ambiance and tired musical templates. Which is why, despite Modern Rituals lack of anything revolutionary in regards to the indie music scene, and specifically standard pop-folk savoir faire, it’s a genuinely endearing record.
Chief itself is even a bit boilerplate, bringers of the oft-times duplicated easy-listening west-coast band (despite the group’s formation while in NY), and a probable frontrunner in the ongoing nu-Americana movement of the past several years. And the way comfort food so adeptly embodies the ordinary, reminding us of simple things we loved, and maybe still love, despite there being more challenging options to choose from, so does Chief. The biggest reason to dislike them ends up being a longing for something more complicated, which shouldn’t keep listeners from enjoying their sound.
The music here shouldn’t be underestimated either, despite its customary labeling; there are some flat-out gorgeous cuts on this album. “This Land” bemoans failed relationships with a contrarily pretty, floating melody over stacked vocal harmonies and a gentle guitar cycle. “The Minute I Saw It” similarly takes disaffected echoing vocals and percussion with, this time around, a more melancholy song, creating something that sounds much larger and more distant than it actually is. Lead singer Evan Koga finds a comfortable balance between nasal rocker and hippie, a couple octaves below Jim James, and is best when he lets the music lead him along such as the mini-jam “Breaking Walls” or the excitable, alt-country fiddling of “Stealing”.
Pleasant melodies aside, in the long run Modern Rituals biggest challenge will be its musical longevity and memorability. The band has yet to discover the missing element (or maybe even passion, to a certain degree) that will keep them lodged in peoples’ musical frontal lobes. Like so many albums being produced now, Modern Rituals is just as easy to get hooked on and play non-stop for a couple months as it is to set aside and forget. That’s what, despite its initial appeal, keeps it from being a classic record as opposed to simply engaging.