On the strength of the crossover ubiquity of bands like Of Monsters and Men, the Lumineers, and revival granddaddies Mumford & Sons, folk music has officially infiltrated the pop mainstream. Trouble is, much of the buoyant, vacuously uplifting radio-friendly singles being churned out by these upstarts lack the bluegrass eclecticism and rambling Americana textures that have been the flesh and blood of folk for decades. Of course, this hasn’t stopped any number of bands teetering somewhere between pop, indie rock, and folk from tearing out of the woodwork to tap into this new string-band vogue.
Upon first listen, Run River North’s music strikes a similar tone to that of Of Monsters and Men, from the vocal harmonies to the subdued guitar lines and resplendent, cathartic choruses. But rather than thrive on mighty, clarion vocal sweetness, as Of Monsters and Men does, the Asian-American sextet lean on Alex Hwang’s understated, whispery croon. The singer lends gentle conviction to the album’s major theme of the sacrifice and hardship the band members’ parents endured as Korean immigrants and the filial debt inherited by their children.
The empathetic act of imagining the suffering and toil of earlier generations of Korean Americans manifests in “Foxbeard,” one of the album’s most poignant songs and certainly its most intricate and restrained musical composition. If only more of the songs had the same musical sophistication and pathos. With its intimate acoustics, Explosions in the Sky-esque string arrangements, and disarming vocal harmonies, “Foxbeard” is a fleeting glimpse into what Run River North could have been with more patient, mature songcraft and disciplined, methodic instrumentals. Jennifer Rim’s violin is the band’s secret weapon, and here it’s dispatched with heartbreaking force.
Run River North’s narratives are a far cry from the sprawling, wanton balladry of contemporary American folk music; they’ll never be a true folk band as long as they lack the feral energy, louche charisma, or shambling raconteur personae of bands like Old Crow Medicine Show or the Devil Makes Three. But, of course, they don’t have to be. Their chamber- and folk-pop aesthetic works, to a limited degree, thanks to the depth of their instrumental repertoire and the exuberant, restless spirit of Hwang’s voice. If they want to mature into something more refined and distinguished, they’d be well-suited to trade in the feathery coffee-shop showmanship and instead focus on galvanizing their musical talents and finding the stories that inspire them in deeper, darker ways.