Early on a Sunday afternoon, the two girls and two guys that make up Durham neo-folk outfit Midtown Dickens lounge in the living room of member Will Hackney. Catherine Edgerton sits somewhat nervously in an armchair, bracing herself for questions about the band’s new LP. Her songwriting partner, Kym Register, is far more relaxed, testing out reeds for a clarinet next to the lanky Jonathan Henderson.
Hackney excitedly describes a chance for new tour transportation. That week, he had seen an ad for an old bread truck with less than 200,000 miles on it. From there, the discussion explodes, each player jumping over the next with ideas. These include plans for the bread truck (Henderson suggests they bolt down a couch into the back), ways to enhance the minivan in which they currently travel and the pros and cons of pulling a trailer behind a small sedan. These days, Midtown Dickens spends a lot of time thinking about where they’re going. They’re also incredibly happy with where they are.
“We have grown into sharing musical responsibilities a lot more as a band,” Register explains. That might not sound like a big deal, but for this band, it very much is. Midtown Dickens began five years ago as a cute and catchy twee-folk duo, Register and Edgerton picking up instruments as they went along, playing with a naive excitement that made their mistakes as fetching as their triumphs. Home, the band’s third salvo, is a far cry from their roughshod early output. It’s filled with spacious and elegant folk songs, lightened by experimental flourishes and carried to fruition by sweeping melodies. It’s a remarkably mature effort, especially for a band first known for their charming childishness.
Dickens’ maturation first lead them to the expanded sonic palate of 2009’s Lanterns, which saw them bringing on three new members including now-departed drummer Michelle Preslik. While that album engaged heavily in longer songs and strung-out experimental arrangements, the tone was not dissimilar to Oh Yell!, the band’s 2007 debut. In contrast, Home is stark and dramatic, with moments of fragile emotionalism accentuated by rich swells of expertly controlled clamor via guitars, pianos, banjos and saw. The songs demand new heights of confidence and collaboration.
“It becomes this study of collaborating,” Register says of the band’s evolution. Now, there are no defined instrumental roles. The players rotate instruments throughout each performance.
“I haven’t played music with anyone but Catherine and these guys,” she continues, “but I don’t record it onto wax or something that people are going hear and identify us with anybody else. I’m interested in playing in other ways, like by myself or with friends, which I’m starting to do. But this project is so comfortable for me to bring in this thing that’s extremely personal. All the songs that I write feel extremely personal. I just learn so much from the arrangements that everyone brings to the table.”
As greatly as Dickens’ instrumental prowess has grown, they haven't sacrificed the wide-eyed wonderment that has become their signature. Their new songs are still filled with the same poignantly cartoonish imagery that defined their previous outings. On Home these symbols bear the weight of powerful emotions with surprising finesse. Carried into bittersweet life by a piercing harmonica solo, “Elephant” picks apart clichéd expressions about the titular animal to explore the stresses of the adult world. “What’s tougher than the thickest skin/ You’re not the only elephant,” Register and Edgerton sing, trading the lines between Register’s gravelly folk croon and Edgerton’s bright country belt.
“It’s like some kind of meditation about being able to release inhibition,” Edgerton says, explaining her songwriting. “What comes through when you release inhibition is the tiny images or pieces that have stuck with you in life. Depending on who you are, different things stick with you. One thing that’s really awesome about being an emotionally sensitive person is going through a day and seeing something or a piece of something and feeling for it. It can be the most arbitrary little thing. I think that’s the kind of stuff that people connect with, these little details that are really specific and full of color.”
As conscious as the band is of such symbolism, it’s surprising that the album's images of “home” caught them by surprise. But when they listened to the result, they knew that had to be the title. As Register puts it, a home is “the space that you redefine everything else in.” By that definition, Midtown Dickens is home enough to support their still-growing talent.
— Jordan Lawrence is music editor at Charlotte-based Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.
who: Midtown Dickens, with Hope For Agoldensummer and Curtains
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Thursday, April 12 (8:30 p.m. $8/$10. http://www.thegreyeagle.com)