The Rivergods are you and me — assuming you also work a regular job, raise kids, play music as a way of socializing with friends, and sometimes feel completely and terrifyingly uneasy about the state of our country.
New London couple Ben and Nancy Parent and their band release a great new album every three years or so. "State of the Union," this year's model, is a collection of approachable, Heartland rock songs, with acres of harmonies, acoustic guitars and violins, and lyrics about marriage, religion and the daily struggle to understand what's going on in America.
"We're in such divisive times right now," says Nancy. "I'm hopeful that music, and the arts in general, can help elevate us above our staunched positions, whatever they may be."
Ben Parent and Eric Gelfond formed the Rivergods in 1996. Nancy and Ben started dating in 1997; soon, Nancy was singing backup and playing acoustic guitar. The couple's tastes leaned toward alt-country: Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown.
"We were seeing a lot of them live and soaking them up," Nancy says.
Nancy located a pedal steel and worked it into the Rivergods' sound.
"It became about a feel, a certain sound I recognized," Nancy says. "I identified with it more as a vocalist than as a guitar player, that I could explore lines and melodies that would suit the song in an atmospheric way."
The Rivergods' earliest lineup — Ben and Nancy, Gelfond, Jim Gannotti, Amanda Just and Rahn Lawson — released a debut album, "Capsule," in 2000, and Gelfond decamped. The Parents met Hoolios guitarist Jim Carpenter, who joined up and produced "Time Has Come," a 2003 album. Carpenter brought in mandolin player Sandy Allen and bassist Mike Palazzolo. "That became our lineup for the next seven or eight years," Ben says.
For the most part, the Parents don't write together. "We have different styles," Nancy says. "The Rivergods is our vehicle to play out, to have a full band sound. I'm still trying to find which songs work in that context and how to let the other songs be heard as well."
In 2012, Nancy released "Vision of Angels," a solo album of songs she had written over the course of a decade. "I really started taking risks and developing melodies," she says. "It's a growing thing and a high priority in my life. I really want to get better at [songwriting]."
The Rivergods lineup turned over again after 2014's "Never Grow Old." The Parents recruited violinist Dana Takaki (who played on "Visions of Angels") and bassist Mark Gehret. Bill Groth, a busy keyboard player, "really helped us open up our sound," Ben says. "They're all really good players. It was important to Nancy and I to grow the band musically."
"The changing personnel thing is just the nature of bands," Nancy says. "You have the find the right combination of commitment to the songs and the music and the whole concept, but then also people who are willing to defer to the songwriters. That's a bit of a challenge sometimes. We've had to navigate some of that over the years."
"State of the Union" offers coping strategies.
"If I could just remind myself that it's all part of a plan," Nancy sings on "Station Down the Line," over plaintive piano chords and a violin melody, exactly at the center point of the album, "remember to remember that it's all out of my hands."
"Angel's Face" masks resignation ("try as I might, I can't turn the darkness into light / try as I may, I can't make the feeling go away") with breezy pop. "Jubilee," meanwhile, is four-chord rock, with airy pedal steel and a grounding violin riff, that's about getting lost in routines and being fine with it:
see them windmills spinning in the foothills
green grass and tarmac rolling out to the bay
let's make the most of our quotidian folly
hold each other like it's all okay
Acceptance is tempered with spunk and anger; the waltz-time "Churches" is a song-length, fearless indictment of malicious acts — misogyny, violence, misdirection for political gain — performed in the name of religion. "It's Up To You," a rallying cry ("listen to your own voice, don't let them drown you out") set to a martial two-step beat with populist trumpet flourishes, trots out some whistling and a whole-step shift (the so-called "truck driver modulation") before the last verse.
Throughout, Nancy's harmonies sweeten Ben's rasp. There are tasteful instrumental details; listen to the slow-building bridge in "New Emperors," for example, where the bass is joined in succession by Takaki and Groth. The brooding title track, which closes the album, channels late-'80s Neil Young rage, rolling all of "Union's" aggression up into one mighty spitball: "right-wing lunatic flapping his gums / preying hard on the feeble and green / pundits preaching on the television / they treat the poor like a social disease."
"State of the Union" was recorded at Carl Franklin's Pwop Studios in New London, and the Rivergods hosted a CD release party in early March at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London.
In the studio, Nancy enjoys building tracks slowly, from the bottom up. Ben's the opposite, sort of; he's most proud that the Rivergods rehearsed the entire "State of the Union" album for six weeks, then banged it out in the studio in a single weekend.
"We got a product that feels like a very polished sound," Ben says. "I'm proud of Nancy and I for getting to the point, as musicians, where we can realize a sound like that without having to put 18 months of work into it."
Press Play is a column by music writer Michael Hamad exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. If you have new music to share, send it to him at email@example.com.