Nothing flashy is the new flashy; and stripped-down, honest, homey folk music that can be consumed intimately with a pair of headphones has become more trend than fluke. Dark Mean embodies this sort of music, but with the same kind of subtlety that allows their music to so easily get stuck in your head.
Their debut, a ten song canon of introspective, often acoustic gems, has been under construction since 2007, and the care and effort put into each song is glaring. The music is sparsely laden, but every note from every instrument feels like it was placed by hand in exactly the right spot. Mark Dean, lead singer/songwriter and the band’s obvious namesake, balances a number of genre changes with precision, steering the boisterous, anthematic tracks with the same skill and control as the quieted, subdued ones, recalling the likes of Jeff Mangum and early Sufjan Stevens.
From the peaceful opening of “Algonquin”, with acoustic guitar and trumpet slowly unfolding over Dean’s steady vocals, the album flaunts its confidence in things to come with a beautiful prelude. It almost makes the insistent drums of “Happy Banjo” seem out of place until the titular banjo and warm backing instruments appear; and despite the sudden change of pace, melodically and thematically everything stays on track, and builds nicely towards the syncopated, four-on-the-floor chorus of “Smoke Lake”.
Despite the early faster-paced cuts, Dark Mean is at their best when things have quieted down. “Music Box” steadily builds a pretty melody into an Agesandages-esque vocal collective. “Lullaby” explores slightly darker territory with slower guitars, banjos and a hint of dissonance in the background slide guitars. The record finishes with “Old Man”, a prog rock instrumental that gathers its accompaniments like a passing thunderstorm. It’s gentle but powerful, and lets the album’s friendly strains drift away from the listener, rather than simply stopping.
This is a must-listen album with staying power, and one of the year’s best. The record is fascinating, largely because of its ability to feel completely familiar and mysterious at the same time. Like a friend you haven’t seen in years, there’s plenty of memories to rehash and just as many new experiences to discover. Dark Mean is clearly a band that has not only discovered their voice, but are also several steps ahead of where other fledgling groups would be. If it takes another four years for an album this good, it’ll be worth the wait.