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“Ribbons of Light,” the latest EP from Autumn in Halifax, aka Rochesterian David Merulla, definitely sounds like a throwback — but perhaps not in the way Merulla envisioned.
The singer and multi-instrumentalist cites R.E.M.’s first five albums, released in the early and mid-’80s, as inspiration. But the EP’s actual influences sound as if they came a decade or two later. While Michael Stipe’s sense of introspection is present on “Ribbons of Light,” Merulla’s voice sounds more like that of Elliott Smith or Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Maybe it’s the earnestness of the singing, the isolation inherent in the limited instrumentation, or the quiet melancholy in the lyrics.
Whatever Merulla is doing, he should keep it up. Joined only by Dirk Doucette as his rhythm section, backing vocalist, and sometime-synth player, Merulla plays music that is sad and comforting at the same time. At its heart, Autumn in Halifax’s sound is a deconstruction of the 2000s indie folk revival that saw the rise of acts such as Iron & Wine and Bon Iver.
Merulla’s singing has that same signature softness and vulnerability, but the words are always discernible, rather than melted in the instrumentation as just another layer. The acoustic guitar is used merely as a vehicle for simple chord progressions, rather than as a charming backwoods affectation. The use of synths adds a touch of warm psychedelia that wards off any potential monotony.
“Ribbons of Light” is understated, but that’s precisely why it works. Straightforward melodies, chords, and structures make for a concise and sophisticated approach to songwriting that strips away the excesses of modern folk music. That music sounded as if it were trying too hard to seduce the listener. Not so with Autumn in Halifax. What’s left here is honest, and essential.
Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s arts editor. He can be reached at [email protected].