Album review: ‘Howling Back at the Wounded Dog’ by The Rough & Tumble

“Well, the hardest part is over,” Mallory Graham sings on the opening track of The Rough & Tumble’s latest album, Howling Back at the Wounded Dog. Her expansive voice goes tender as she hits the rejoinder: “Yeah, the til the next hardest part.”

The album could stop there: What more is there to say? That inalienable truth, sung in harmony and with emotional fluency by Graham and her on and off-stage partner Scott Tyler, leaves a sweet sting. It contains the fleetingness of summer, the wistfulness of romance, the magic of fireflies. But it also contains the hard-scrapple beauty of living: The scrapes and bumps accrued while working toward a goal, a summit, a golden moment.

And yet, art is the conversation that begins after everything has been said.

Fortunately, Howling Back at the Wounded Dog continues for nine more tracks — though a thematic precedent (scrapes, bumps, ultimate joy) has been set. “Howl at the Moon” is the title track (in intention if not exact wording). Here, the duo kicks up its heels. Acoustic strums stoke real-life dog howls, presumably from one of the couple’s fur babies. Tyler’s sturdy singing provides a structure over which Graham’s voice can rise and fall, going raw around the edges before she reels it smoothly back.

“Call Mercy” is folk-gospel tinged. A slow and ambling waltz, the high point is the non-lyric vocalizations. This track makes the most out of the simplest of melodies. Keys and strings build to underscore the spiritual enthrall (that serves as allegory for romantic angst). It’s a sad song, but there’s beauty in that, too: “Like the sound of a church on a Saturday night,” as the song says.

The collection ranges from ballads and bluegrass to folk rockers, stitched together with simple production and mostly acoustic instrumentation. The songs are culled from stories and moments of life, love and small pleasures. Perhaps most epitomical is “Good Friends Go Home,” which name checks Asheville, the duo’s former hometown. (They now live, permanently on the road, in an RV.) The track starts with the rattle and pop of a drum machine, but the juxtaposition of soft strumming and accordion, plus upbeat harmonies, lends a charming DIY vibe to the synthesized beat. The stuttering rhythm hints at a Caribbean vibe, but the lyrics and lithe weaving of Graham’s and Tyler’s voices are homegrown and neo-Southern.

Though not placed to follow “Good Friends Go Home,” the snappy and carefree “Anywhere with You” carries the mood. Tasteful xylophone notes add to the texture, along with a toy piano. (Such touches of unexpected sound — including a nose flute in the live show — are part of The Rough & Tumble’s unique aesthetic: a balanced blend of quirk and earnestness.) The spirit of playfulness is evident, as is the affection the couple share for each other and their craft.

And isn’t that the goal? If that’s not the way the narrative plays out, so be it, eventualities be damned. But let this pledge of lasting love, however unlikely, be the light that marks the path.

While not every song is upbeat (“Little White Paper” is a tribute to the duo’s late, beloved dog Butter) there’s a through line of hopefulness. Final track “South Dakota Skies” is another invocation of travel, soulmate-hood and wide-open landscapes. Here, Graham and Tyler’s voices are up front, with the instrumentation offering gentle support — not that the sometimes dusky, sometimes soaring harmonies require much embellishment. And, while it’s not exactly a book-ending, the couple’s full-moon-style howls bring the album back to its title.

So is there a wounded dog here? Perhaps. This is an album free of artifice, for sure. But the fist-pumping, blood-racing, no-holds-barred suggestion of the howl is far more prominent than any ghost pains from old scars.

Howling Back at the Wounded Dog will be available on September 6.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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