Credit Andrew Marlin for investing his time meaningfully over the last year. Like the rest of us, Marlin and his bandmates in Mandolin Orange were forced to shelve numerous live dates and whatever other musical activities they had planned in 2020 due to a global pandemic. As the world turned confusing and chaotic, Marlin turned inward in order to process and heal. Making music made meaning.
The resultant yield was greater than fans might have expected. This month, Marlin is releasing two new instrumental albums: The first, Witching Hour, released last Friday, and Fable & Fire comes out Feb. 19. Both albums feature the same core ensemble —guitarists Josh Oliver (of Mandolin Orange) and Jordan Tice (Hawktail), Mandolin Orange bassist Clint Mullican, and fiddler Christian Sedelmyer (Jerry Douglas Band) — although guests and recording locations varied on each. Together, the albums showcase the beauty of creative discipline and leaning toward what you can control.
While the albums chronicle Marlin’s response to the times, these are in no way grandiose cultural statements. Even without lyrics, these compositions convey very personal, ordinary sentiments — musical expressions that feel very lived-in and relatable. Late-night lullabies. Sorrowful refrains. Musings on beauty and joy.
Witching Hour is the elder twin (by two weeks), recorded in famed Nashville studio The Butcher Shoppe just before it closed. Founded by the legendary John Prine, the studio has served as a creative home to many, including Margo Price, Tyler Childers, and Sturgill Simpson, over the last couple years. However, a new condominium development is taking over, and Marlin grabbed a last chance to return to the space in which he recorded his first solo instrumental album, Buried in a Cape.
As a contrast to Fable & Fire’s emphasis on Irish roots music, Witching Hour is characterized by traditional American fare. “Fireflies and Fairydust” opens as a meditation at dusk, a front porch reflection overlooking the scenery and sentiments of the present. Mandolin Orange fans will recognize “Hawk & A Mule,” which has been in the band’s live repertoire, and it’s a rewarding, even gleeful inclusion here. Meanwhile, “Woodland Star,” the album’s lead single, is a moving lullaby penned for his daughter.
Witching Hour’s ultimate track, “Jenny and the Dulac,” is its finest. The fiddle harmonies at work with Sedelmyer and accomplished guest Brittany Haas (Crooked Still, Dave Rawlings Machine, Hawktail) are particularly sweet, although each member of the collective is given room to shine on this restrained closing track.
Fable & Fire begins with “Stormy Point / Back of Beyond / The Seamstress,” a brilliant triptych that begins as a light and lovely mandolin/acoustic arrangement before developing an ominous build that never quite arrives. Instead, Sedelmyer’s wonderful fiddle work leads into a more playful turn before the ensemble dramatically (and even sorrowfully?) comes together in the final section. It’s a moving piece that lasts nearly 11 minutes, an impressive and courageous way to open the second set.
The rest of Fable & Fire, which was recorded over three days at Echo Mountain in Asheville, North Carolina, explores of the varied flavors of Ireland’s storied musical past. The songs are whimsical and reverent. They’re freewheeling pub sessions and melancholy reflections. The dynamism and drama of “Leeward Shore / Crooked Road to Bracey” is especially thrilling, but it’s topped by the lonesome beauty of the title track. Here, guest cellist Nat Smith and Marlin together lament an unnamed brokenness — perhaps a response to the year itself — and it’s the most striking work on either release.
Both albums serve as credible witnesses to two primary elements at work: Andrew Marlin’s incredible range as an artist and the excellence of this gathered musical community. Marlin’s ability to inhabit the range of influences is an accomplishment in itself, but the ensemble’s talent and obvious chemistry breathes life into the work, these mostly tender and timeless instrumental compositions.