(KTR Recordings, CD, digital download)
If you're looking for an uplifting record, then In Our Garden. After the War. Your Eyes Close. I Breathe Out. by local folk group Ava Marie — an inexplicable tweak to the well-known hymn "Ave Maria" — is not for you. The five-piece band's debut album blends the cold, melancholy arrangements of Bon Iver with the drama and raw emotion of recently disbanded folk duo the Civil Wars. Add in weary, image-laden lyrics and you have a contemplative album that won't cure a sour mood but might offer some company.
The opener, "In Our Garden. After the War.," introduces the vocal stylings of lead singer and guitar player Macaulay Lerman and bass player and vocalist Shannon Saulsbury. Their intimate, conversational, back-and-forth approach defines the album, as does a musically sparse aesthetic. Some tunes barely get a lift of guitar. Others, such as "White Twine," benefit from a stroke of Sarah Wallen's piano, or a still backdrop of Tim Halteman's drumming, as on "Save for All, a Dry Place." Sage Maliepaard contributes quiet, minimal violin throughout, but ups the ante with a fast-paced stretch in "Bowed Ships, Cradling."
Though effective in moments, the transition from Saulsbury's soft voice to Lerman's guttural exhaling occasionally occurs, frustratingly, in the middle of a thought or action. For example, in the closer, "Your Eyes Close, I Breathe Out." Here, Saulsbury sings, "Fluttering eyelids against damp bed sheets / when I breathe in you exhale with a murmur." He opens with measured and delicate breath, pausing on each syllable in "fluttering." Lerman makes a jarring appearance on the word "damp," snuffing the sentiment as though it were a candle on a very sad birthday cake, and thus souring what would otherwise be a sensual and familiar image of two lovers lying in bed.
Lyrically, Ava Marie place themselves in a post-conflict countryside, focusing on physical and emotional destruction, but also hope for renewal. The last few lines of "With Broken Feet," sung in unison by Saulsbury and Lerman, are emblematic: "And after the war and the funeral / And after a day of argument and reunion / They will need a garden to tend / And a body to mend / And last of all someone to yearn for." In other instances, however, as on these lines from the opener the group comes off as overly — and awkwardly — poetic: "The morning was an open wound / and your belongings scattered all down the road / like the empty frames of dead deer / buildings burning inside your throat."
Still, beautiful moments abound. Saulsbury's turn on "Fever, Sap, Skin" achingly evokes love as a blank canvas. On "Keeper of Crippled Horses," Lerman offers stunning lines about finding someone in everyday physical items long after they're gone. These passages suggest that, in time, Ava Marie might take flight in the folk world, albeit softly and sadly.
In Our Garden. After the War. Your Eyes Close. I Breathe Out. by Ava Marie is available at avamariefolk.bandcamp.com.