The Brook & The Bluff is perfectly poised between the past and the present, at an unexpected crossroads where indie rock and folk-rock have found new frontiers and possibilities online. For a moment, conjure an image of a band of five longtime pals, writing alluring new rock classics about the frailties of love and the ennui of existence, soft and familiar as a pair of old jeans. It may look something like The Brook & The Bluff, named for the members’ respective childhood neighborhoods in Birmingham, Alabama—two brothers and some neighbors, all childhood chums. Like their road-bound rock forebears, the band followed a proven path for the better part of a decade, growing from a college-town covers duo to a hard-touring quintet.
In recent years, The Brook & The Bluff’s incandescent harmonies, winning arrangements, and observational acumen have unexpectedly put them upon a different on-ramp for success: streaming stardom. They are now, by far, one of the most successful young bands at folk-rock’s amorphous contemporary edge, fusing the craft of the past with the ideas and avenues of the present. With a dozen songs that won’t let go, their third album, Bluebeard, makes an unequivocal case as to why.
For three generations, the family of keyboardist Kevin and drummer John Canada—the aforementioned brothers of The Brook & The Bluff—have owned a simple slate gray cabin perched on the edge of an ancient Appalachian mountain in north Georgia. In the past, the band took writing retreats in those quiet woods, penning pieces of their first two albums there. When they returned to begin building Bluebeard, a tossed-off idea stuck around: Why not turn the space into an ad hoc studio and record an entire album there, in the place that felt like home. They pitched their idea to their longtime producer and pal Micah Tawlks, and then they were off to the town of Sky Valley, staring at a majestic sweep of the Blue Ridge Mountains as they began Bluebeard. The view you see on the cover? That was theirs.
“I came up here to just breathe,” Joseph Settine sings with a sigh at Bluebeard’s start, before the band even joins. “Sway like the mountains, rustle like leaves—just the normal things.” Indeed, so much of Bluebeard lands like an exhalation, like climbing above the world’s madness to get your head together.
Take “Tangerine,” the irrepressible earworm near the album’s center. Settine is beset by the world, its to-do lists and social obligations making him feel like a spectator to his own life. What’s more, he’s distracted from the simple pleasures of being infatuated with someone, of “eating tangerines/with just our fingers.” When “Tangerine” blooms into a falsetto refrain, the sound is redemptive and reassuring, like taking a moment to enjoy the experience of simply existing.
Settine treads those same pools of depression during “Foggy Lens,” a frank testimonial about waking up and feeling like the day is already done. But the band shimmers and sashays like the Byrds around him, with Alec Bolton’s smart and supple layers of guitar lifting him from below, a blackbird riding a sudden wave of thermals. “Once in a little while, those clouds lift from my eyes,” Settine sings toward the end, his voice high now. “I feel alive for the first time/in a long time.” Fred Lankford’s bassline curls around him from behind, like a steadying hand on a friend’s shaking shoulder.
In those songs, there are little experimental flourishes, like the way the harmonies and the band push and pull against one another as a cat’s cradle during “Foggy Lens” or the prismatic vocal processing of “Tangerine.”
But The Brook & The Bluff venture further toward the future of folk-rock than ever before here, too, suggesting untold chapters. The ingenious “Headfirst”—a song about finding yourself by finding someone else—comes into focus slowly, like a phantom materializing on the Earth’s surface, a bright bit of text painting. The smartly processed guitar, the warped robotic vocals, and skywriting beat find a secret space between Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, Lambchop’s Mr. M, and a sleeper summer hit. The vertiginous strings and paisley synths of “Prove You Wrong” add new strata of doubt to a tender number about being underappreciated by a partner, about realizing you’re the right person thrust into the wrong dynamic. Such moments funnel the familiar into the uncanny, as The Brook & The Bluff reimagines how to render real-life complexities into fetching sound, here at the lip of our past and present.
Early into Bluebird, at the start of “Hiding,” Lankford and John Canada lock into a deliciously sunburnt groove, bass and drums strutting like some day-drunk Muscle Shoals fever dream. These are sons of Alabama, after all, and this song speaks to their homeland’s funky history. As Settine tries to make plans for himself, to write himself out of another wrong situation, the rest of the band offers unexpected flourishes at his side—guitar arpeggios and drum accents borrowed from disco, harmony touches learned from Steely Dan, a spectral guitar solo that might make Nels Cline grin. It feels like a modern classic, shaped by the past but very much of and for right now—just like The Brook & The Bluff, five longtime friends finding a new way forward.