Songs from the Vanished Frontier, the second album from New York’s Yellowbirds, includes love songs and breakup songs, happy numbers and sad numbers, tunes about not believing in the truth and, alternately, tunes about delivering it. There’s bracing rock ’n’ roll and bubbling folk, drifting jangle and swiveling R&B. But the thread that unites these nine instantly affecting songs is their search to find the signal amid the noise—that is, to understand the world and its whirlwind and to deliver just a little bit of clarity every three or four minutes. “What have I believed in?” Sam Cohen sings toward the end of the title track, his voice a near-murmur that peeks out from beneath the ashes of a smoldering empire. “How will I deceive me now?”
That quest for answers and assurance suits Cohen’s backstory: After the 2009 end of his longtime vehicle for wild, radiant anthems and experiments, Apollo Sunshine, Cohen thought his musical career might be over. But a clutch of songs he wrote in his bedroom soon found currency with a few New York musicians, and they started developing and playing them under the name Yellowbirds. The band’s 2011 debut, The Color, received favorable reviews, with Pitchfork Media noting that the record espoused “an endearing raggedness … as though Cohen invited you into his living room.”
Vanished Frontier hinges on the same intimacy, but you’d never mistake it for a living room project. Indeed, for the first time, Cohen and his now full-time band (drummer Brian Kantor, singer/bassist Annie Nero, her husband and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman) had their own studio in which to build the new songs and sounds.
“I knew the sonic possibilities were broader than ever before, so I made a point to write the entire album on an acoustic guitar before delving into recording,” says Cohen. “I wanted to believe in the songs in their rawest form.”
Again, he wanted to keep the signal clear from the noise, and that’s precisely what Vanished Frontier achieves. It’s not a fussy album, overpopulated by a load of special guests and strange accessories. And Cohen’s brilliant guitar playing is never flashy so much as it is functional, sending simple lines through a web of carefully chosen effects to help illustrate the stories he sings. On “Vanished Frontier,” for instance, the arid guitar seems to be shaking its world-weary head every time Cohen uncovers another lie; during the lovelorn equivocation of “Mean Maybe,” the six-string solo warps the blues into a pattern that’s as fractured as Cohen’s feelings.
That’s not to say, of course, that these songs are spare or stripped in any way. This is still Sam Cohen, of course, draping and dressing these tunes with spectral harmonies and backmasked voices, decorative percussion and interwoven textures. It’s just that these songs now stand on their own and then glow in the presence of the band and the studio. In the end, then, the noise supports the signal.
The beginning of Lapland started before it even had a name. It was born in a tiny half-bedroom in Brooklyn, where songwriter Josh Mease began recording a new batch of songs in early 2011. Mease has always found comfort in the solitude of his own thoughts, often preferring the landscapes within his mind’s eye over the bustle of the city that surrounds him. So it seems fitting that in making Lapland’s self-titled debut, he worked alone using whatever was within reach – only rarely using other musicians.
Perhaps this self-imposed isolation is why Lapland has such an introspective tone. Themes of separation and loss are woven throughout the album, as Lapland moves fluently through different styles and genres while maintaining a uniquely personal sound. From the percolating electronic gallop of the opening track, “Unwise”, to the blue-eyed soul of “Aeroplane”, to the acoustic haze and layered harmonies of “Overboard”, Mease always keeps things interesting. One can hear the effect of the myriad of music styles and genres that informed Lapland – Early synth pioneers of the 60â€²s and 70â€²s, French Impressionists like Ravel and Debussy, and 1970â€²s staples like Fleetwood Mac.
Mixing styles is not new for Mease. He grew up in Texas where his childhood love of rock and country evolved into studying jazz guitar. After moving to New York, he eventually shifted his focus from playing jazz to singing and writing songs. This transformation gives Mease a unique approach to songwriting, and his work has earned him fans not only in indie circles but also in jazz, R&B, and classical music as well.
The name Lapland only presented itself after the album was completed, when Mease picked up a book from the $2 stacks at a used bookstore called “Lappland Wanderland.” The book contained photos of other-worldly landscapes and vast open spaces which seemed to connect with Mease’s new recording. It was not a difficult decision to adopt the name Lapland for this new phase of Mease’s career. The scope of his work deserves a moniker of symbolic significance. And so, Lapland began.
Press from Josh Mease’s previous album Wilderness
“Josh Mease has put together one of the strongest debuts I’ve heard this year….Wilderness is beautifully crafted with some lovely melodies and harmonies. Mease has a warm and distinctive voice, and a real ear for arrangements that sound lush without becoming too cluttered. It’s the kind of album I can fall in love with from the opening notes of the first track.”
- NPR All Songs Considered
“Some very good music went down…And Mr. Mease, who seems to love the intimacy and chord changes in Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson’s work, made his case with music that kept alternately settling you and waking up your ear through harmony.”
- New York Times
“In such work, arrangements are crucial, and Mease resists the temptation to add clutter. Even when the setting seems fancy, with clavinet and backing choirs, the recording is spare—he is confident in his songs.”
- TimeOut New York
“Heavily reverbed piano, guitar arpeggios, fluttering synths, walls of wordless backing vocals and jazz-inspired chord changes produce a heady brew….[D]ebuts this promising are rare”
- Paste Magazine