River Whyless lets listeners in with new EP

CLOSING IN: With recent hard-earned success, such as recognition from NPR's David Dye, River Whyless is feeling the love. "But day to day it's the same," says percussionist Alex McWalters. "You're still trying to write the next great song." Photo courtesy of the band

Although recent years have seen local indie-folk quartet River Whyless on the road with increasing frequency, the band is more connected to Asheville than ever. “I feel like we’re ambassadors out there,” says singer and guitarist Ryan O’Keefe. “I love to say it on the microphone. The reaction is always like, ‘You’re from Asheville? I love Asheville!’”

“Traveling as much as we do, we represent Asheville to people who see us outside of Asheville,” says percussionist Alex McWalters. “But we also represent Asheville to people who see us at home, somehow.”

“But I feel like we have a lot more of Asheville to tap into,” adds vocalist and violinist Halli Anderson — and that’s part of the reason, despite national press from Paste, Pop Matters and NPR’s “World Cafe,” the band has decided to launch its new self-titled EP on home turf. That show happens at The Mothlight on Saturday, March 7.

The EP, out in January, serves not only to tide over fans until the next full-length album (look for that in 2016), but as an introduction for those new to River Whyless. Among the five tracks are songs by each of the three songwriters (O’Keefe, Anderson and newest member Daniel Shearin), as well as a collaborative song and a remake of Shearin’s “Miles of Skyline,” originally released when he was half of folk duo Uncle Mountain.

“It came together so easily that it was done before I had a chance to consider it,” Shearin jokes. But the song — plucked strings, found-object rhythms and a soaring melody all underscoring Shearin’s gorgeously breezy lyric — is unforgettable from first listen.

“I have so much fun playing that song that I wanted to put it out there for people who already knew it,” say McWalters.

The band was less decisive about lead track “Life Crisis” (it scores the newest ExploreAsheville.com promo video). “An outlier,” “a safe choice” and “poppy” are critiques the musicians offer. “It almost didn’t make the cut,” says Anderson.

“The original version was way different, and none of us could agree on it,” says McWalters. “I was insisting we keep working on it because I thought it could be a good song. There was a breakthrough — when we changed the groove, the whole song changed.”

The end result — the most cohesive song River Whyless has written — begins quietly, with heartbreaking vocal harmony. Hand claps, tasteful percussion and mellow guitar strums call to mind a kind of campfire camaraderie. The aching refrain, “I will lend you my skin,” the slow build of intensity and the explosive violin take the listener on a welcome emotional journey. If it’s an obvious crowd-pleaser, it’s also a window into the particular magic of River Whyless.

“I’m always saying you need a couple of tracks that are immediately accessible,” says McWalters. Otherwise, “the whole record can go over your head.” And, O’Keefe admits, it’s currently his favorite song to play live.

That’s not such a stretch from the EP, which was recorded live; the band spent four days at La La Land Studios in Louisville, Ky., with engineer Kevin Ratterman. But while there is a certain ease making its way into River Whyless’ brand of layered complexity, don’t expect the band to eliminate sonic exploration. “We’re experimenting with worldly sounds on our instruments,” says O’Keefe. “We’re not intentionally staying away from traditional rock, but we talk about different cultures’ sounds when we write our music — Japanese, Chinese and Indian folk music.”

McWalters adds, “For me it’s just a matter of what inspires me, what gets me excited.”

WHO: River Whyless with Twain and Luke Norton
WHERE: The Mothlight, themothlight.com
WHEN: Saturday, March 7, at 9 p.m. $10

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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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