As a genre, white-knuckle Americana may have peaked in 2013, with Mumford & Sons' "Babel" winning the Grammy for Album of the Year. But it's a safe bet that folk-based rock, using acoustic guitars, mandolins, banjos and pianos, with restrained (or full-out rock) drumming and layered vocals, has a secure seat at the pop-music table for the foreseeable future. (Or if it disappears temporarily, there's every indication it'll rebound just as strongly, as acoustic-wielding groups like the Avett Brothers, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and the Lumineers continue to draw huge crowds and win over new, younger audiences.)
Poor Old Shine, a quintet from Mansfield, Conn. that's currently touring the West Coast for the third time, sometimes borrows heavily from their influences; "Weeds or Wildflowers," the first track on their self-titled debut, released last year, might remind you of "Live And Die," from the Avett Brother's 2012 album "The Carpenter." Lead vocals are sung in thirds through most of the track, before being divvied out to individual singers: another technique the Avetts have mastered, along with pockets of sophisticated music tucked carefully in bridges and outros (check out the middle section of "Weeds," where an instrumental drop-out builds slowly to another, shouted climax).
Elsewhere, an atmospheric pump organ — I think that's what it is — at the beginning of "The Hurry All Around" recalls the opening of "I Hope There's Love," by Philadelphia psych-rock band Dr. Dog (a band Poor Old Shine's Max Shakun said doesn't register as one of the band's influences). That's not to say there isn't plenty of originality in Poor Old Shine's debut, which alternates between stompers and ballads — or at least that you'll find ample evidence the band fishes in the same well-stocked stream of American music, from Bob Dylan and the Band to Pete Seeger, as their contemporaries. It's all fair game.
The 10 tracks on the album were recorded in eight days at the Great North Sound Society, an isolated recording retreat in Parsonfield, Maine run by producer/engineer Sam Kassirer. There's no mobile service there, and the nearest store is a 30-minute drive, Shakun said. The musicians were largely free from the usual time-crunch associated with recording an album; their stay at Great North was a flat-rate situation, and whatever time they wanted to devote to recording was up to them. They could sleep in if they wanted to, take walks or work all night long, if inspiration struck. (Recently, Poor Old Shine returned to Great North to work on a new EP.)
"It's basically like you really locked yourself away," Shakun said. "It was a really great learning experience. We learned a lot about ourselves as a band."
Over those eight days, Poor Old Shine and Kassirer used a range of instruments — I counted at least 10 on the record — and honed vocal arrangements and song structures to get the sound they wanted. They got creative with recording techniques; the vocals for "Love Song," a wonderful ballad appearing near the end of the album, were recorded on an old iPhone by mandolin player Antonio Alcorn — not because that was the desired take but for the effect it gives the song. You feel like you're in the room with the vocalists, who sing of longing and desire: "Tell me, can't you tell, how my heart does swell / I've been dreaming of you all night long / But no word my heart sings does justice to these things / and it's hard to write a love song."
Kassirer, Shakun said, encouraged experimentation, both in the arrangements of songs and transferring those ideas onto tracks. "I think Sam felt it would be a cool texture for the ["Love Song"]," Shakun said. The last song on the album, "Tear Down the Stage," is a raucous closing number, with a loping barroom groove, saloon-piano licks and gang-shouted lyrics:
Tear down the stage that I grew up on
I won't be here in another year
I'll be traveling on my own
Take all the oil, the gasoline and gold
And feed it to my dreams
The last things I really own
"Tear Down the Stage," Shakun said, was originally written by Freeman, but "the arrangement changed tremendously. It used to be a bluegrass tune, but we thought it would be cool to have a rowdy party feel to the song."
Poor Old Shine headlines the Hartfolk Festival on Saturday, May 31, on a bill that includes the KC Sisters, Kerri Powers, Rachael Sage and Sam Moss. Although they're touring constantly these days, Poor Old Shine, Shakun said, still calls Connecticut home.
"It's where we grew up," Shakun said. "It's where our friends and family members are."