UPDATE: On April 21, 2021, Mandolin Orange sent out an email to their fans to let everyone know that the band’s name had changed to Watchhouse. It is a thoughtful report on how a year in pandemic led to introspection as to where they were as a band and where they were going.
I first heard the North Carolina folk duo Mandolin Orange at the 2014 Red Wing Roots Music Festival and was instantly smitten. I wrote then that singer-songwriter Andrew Marlin and multi-instrumentalist Emily Frantz “crafted songs that were simple yet compelling.” Over the years the band has continued to produce warm, intimate music even as they became more widely known and played larger venues such as Red Rocks in Colorado and The Ryman in Nashville. Their most recent studio project, Tides of a Teardrop, debuted at #1 on four different Billboard charts ( Heatseekers, Folk / Americana, Current Country Albums and Bluegrass) with Top 10 entries on 5 additional charts. Clearly, Mandolin Orange has a passionate following.
When asked about the band’s unusual name, Emily told an interviewer in 2015, “It’s basically a play on Mandarin Orange, but when we first started playing, Andrew had this little beater, a mandolin that was orange, and I think one day we just sort of thought of that and it stuck.”
Let’s begin our look at their music from those earlier years with the 2014 video of Hey Adam, from the album This Side of Jordan, filmed amidst the evocative artwork and spaces at MassMOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts.
That Wrecking Ball is from the band’s second album on Yep Roc Records, Such Jubilee, released in 2015. For two musicians so young (they are both 32), it is a thoughtful tune about aging and the push back against the ravages of time.
“I’ve just seen that rock of ages
I’ve just held my savior’s hand
We danced on the water with my head on her shoulder
She swore to never let me fall
And wouldn’t time seem so kindly
if every bright eyed girl could be more like you
and shelter me from that wrecking ball
That wrecking ball“
Andrew and Emily played a well-received Tiny Desk Concert last year, with songs from their two most recent studio recordings. Golden Embers and The Wolves are from 2019’s Tides of a Teardrop while Wildfire is from 2016’s Blindfaller. By the time this was recorded, they had been playing together for ten years, recorded six albums, gotten married, and started a family. As Bob Bollen wrote on the Tiny Desk posting, ” “The Wolves is a story song that, for me, tells a tale on an older woman’s life, the “hard road” she’s taken and that feeling of wanting to howl at the moon when all is finally right.” To me, the song and lyrics of Wildfire seem just so right for our times of troubled racial injustice.
“Civil war came and civil war went
Brother fought brother, the south was spent
But its true demise was hatred passed down through the years
And it should have been different, it could have been easy
But pride has a way of holding too firm to history
Then it burns like wildfire”
In their cover of Bob Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather, they show the beauty of simplicity. I love their version of this Dylan masterpiece.
While the band has been on a touring hiatus given the pandemic, they released a live album of a February 2020 recording from Austin City Limits earlier this summer. So we’ll end with Hey Stranger from that album, which has, once again, a message for our troubled times.
“Hey stranger, if ever you decide
Giving in to the bottom will ease your worried mind and heavy heart
You’ll see in time
There’s no burden greater in life”
Mandolin Orange is live streaming from their home base on a regular basis, so if you like what you hear in their music, check them out.
More to come…