'A Tear in the Eye is a Wound in the Heart'
By Geoffrey Himes
Friday, November 9, 2012
The Decemberists began 2011 in triumph, topping the pop charts with their best album, “The King Is Dead,” but ended it with two heavy announcements: Founding keyboardist Jenny Conlee had cancer, and the band would be taking “a multi-year hiatus.” Better news arrived this year: Black Prairie, the Decemberists’ spinoff band, released an impressive second album, “A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart,” with Conlee again at the center of the music-making.
Black Prairie began in 2007 as an all-acoustic, all-instrumental string-band quintet featuring Conlee, fellow Decemberists Chris Funk and Nate Query, Jon Neufeld and Annalisa Tornfelt. Tornfelt added vocals for the band’s 2010 debut, “Feast of the Hunters’ Moon,” and Decemberist drummer John Moen is onboard for most of “A Tear in the Eye,” which is divided between instrumental and vocal numbers.
In the style of such neo-rustic acts as Bon Iver and Low Anthem, Black Prairie uses the pump organ, dulcimer, ukulele, autoharp and banjo to achieve the sonics of a 19th-century band -- not for historical accuracy but to pull the listener into a reverie dislocated in time. This is evident on the anything-goes instrumentals but proves especially effective on the vocals. Tornfelt’s cool soprano and minimalist lyrics rein in the band’s wilder impulses and focus the sound on her tales of disappointed lovers, revivifying nature and the suicide of the Band’s Richard Manuel.