Canadian pastoral folk band The Acorn first attracted a lot of attention with their 2007 album “Glory Hope Mountain”, a 12-track concept album that served as a loosely detailed account of the life of Gloria Esperanza Montoya aka singer Rolf Klausener’s mother. You didn’t need to be aware of the concept to enjoy that record, though it was supremely beneficial if you listened to the entire thing in one sitting. After some great reviews and a lengthy tour to support that last album, The Acorn retreated to a forest cottage in a desolate area of Northern Quebec to work on a follow-up. “No Ghost” is the result and it’s finally out in the U.S. this week, a collection of songs that continues in the band’s rich and gorgeous folk/Americana sound though this time without a singular theme to hold it all together.
At their core, The Acorn aren’t doing much new on “No Ghost”, and that’s both compared to their past releases as well as just in general compared to other similar artists. They’re almost a Canadian version of Grizzly Bear, but with a little more breathing room. Grizzly Bear get so carefully constrained with their songs you could fit them in a neat little box, while The Acorn go all expansive and open field more often than not. But the harmonies are often there, though with less emphasis on them and more on the delicate melodies that the acoustic guitars and a handful of other instruments provide. With less of a thematic element to tie everything together this time, the band is able to focus more on individual songs and throw in a little diversity to their highly traditional style. They use electric guitars a bit more among other things, and the energy is higher and lighter than on past efforts. There’s some feedback and a little bit of electronic noise that factors into opening track “Cobbled From Dust”, though if you weren’t paying close attention it’d be easy to miss those things. “Restoration” is a jaunty finger-picked acoustic track with rimshot percussion that’s simply a delight. Electric guitars actually ruin the serene folk of “I Made the Law”, snatching away what started out as something beautiful and turning it into something with classic rock undertones that just doesn’t fit with the rest of the record. “Crossed Wires” might be the closest thing to a normal indie rock song The Acorn have ever written, with a fast bass pushed up to the front of the mix and a piano gliding along barely in the background. There’s just enough of an off-kilter rhythm though that keeps the song from reaching its full catchy potential. Still, it’s got an almost Neutral Milk Hotel-type charm to it that makes for one of the more exciting tracks on the album. The same could be said of “Bobcat Goldwraith” with its very tribal beats and outright enthusiasm. There’s a horn section that slips in every now and then that really pushes things even farther in the right direction. The title track is an interesting piece of scattershot music, kicking off with some rough electric guitar and electronic noise before breaking down into something a little folkier. It’s almost like the band is channeling a louder version of Animal Collective but not quite getting everything just right. In other words, a noble attempt at experimenting that only partly works out. By contrast, the acoustic alt-country balladry of “Slippery When Wet” is a delight and a return to what The Acorn does best. “Almanac” takes things just a little too far in that direction though, fixating on lots of silent moments between the sparse acoustic guitars, drum rimshots and vocal harmonies. As gorgeous as the song is, it still feels a little frozen in place by not moving beyond where it starts.
For fans of bands like Fleet Foxes, Midlake, Grizzly Bear and more than 2 dozen other folk-driven acts around today, The Acorn is another notch for your belt to grab onto. If you’ve not yet heard any music by this band before and like their sort of music, nothing should be holding you back. What will hold some back is knowing that everything The Acorn does sounds familiar, probably because somebody else has done it before. They’re not the most unique or intensely brilliant band around. Instead they take an all-too overused musical genre and continue to breathe life into it. Their songs are often immensely gorgeous and there’s absolutely merit in that, even if the lyrics can be a bit of a hodgepodge mess at times. “No Ghost” is the ideal record for a day of relaxation outdoors with the sun out and nature on display around you. Given that fall has unofficially started now, it’s also great for watching the leaves change color. “Glory Hope Mountain” may continue to be the gold standard of Acorn albums, but at the very least this new one proves that brilliance wasn’t just some flash in the pan. Keep an eye on these guys, they could very well be going places in the next few years.