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Something Joyful

Secret Mountains grow out of singer/songwriter grief and start to "Rejoice"

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Pianist Jenny Lin comes to Ligetifest to perform a selection of the composer’s etudes and musica ricercata.

Secret Mountains play the Hexagon Aug. 23.

In just two years of existence, Baltimore’s Secret Mountains have gone from a solo singer/songwriter project to a folk duo to a sprawling six-piece psych-folk mini-orchestra. And in two short EP releases, last year’s Kaddish and this month’s Rejoice—with barely enough songs for a full album combined—the band has transitioned even more from pretty yet morose death-folk to shimmering, joyous, expansive psychedelia. The comforting feat is that all the while it has remained remarkably the same band, holding fast to a sonic plain it staked out at the very beginning.

And knowing who you are is harder than it sounds. (See: MGMT or any number of bloggy bands that get really big really quickly and immediately morph into something else for the sake of being even more crowd-friendly.) The seed of Secret Mountains is young songwriter Jeffrey Silverstein, who began writing the music that would grow into the full band as a freshman in college. “I played three, maybe five shows, under [the name] the Owls Go,” he explains over beers at a Charles Village bar. “The first show was at the Frisby House. There were, like, 80 to 100 kids there and I was just freaked out.

“I really wanted a female vocalist and I met Kelly [Laughlin] one day, actually on the light rail going down to work,” he continues. “We just started talking about bands we’re into. She sent me a really rough demo—and I thought her voice was beautiful.”

From there the band progressed as only the two of them, still known as the Owls Go, for about a year and a half. “It was fun and easy,” Silverstein says.

But they both wanted to play with other people. “We couldn’t stand sitting down at a show anymore,” Silverstein says. The pair then met drummer Chris Muccioli, free after the demise of a Harford County hardcore band he’d been playing with. And then came guitarist Cory Lawrence, keyboardist and general “sound maker” Jake Winstanley, and, eventually, bassist Alex Jones. Rather quickly, the band had shot from a sit-down, quiet folk duo to a burgeoning sextet. And the songs had to grow too.

“It was a lot of taking the songs that were singer/songwriter and developing them a bit, into the full band [arrangement],” Muccioli says. “That was the real evolution. A lot of jamming on parts. Just playing and seeing what feels right.”

“It used to be a little more difficult,” Silverstein adds. “It’s gotten way easier at this point. At first, it was a challenge: How can we make this work and not necessarily kill the singer/songwriter vibe, but [still] progress?”

In August 2009, Secret Mountains released Kaddish, a strikingly pretty, somber folk record recorded in Muccioli’s basement over four days. In much the same way the folk-pop band Vetiver does, the six-piece excelled at making a modern folk record powerful with a comparatively simple palette of sounds and ideas by sheer force of excellent songwriting and, well, Laughlin’s indeed beautiful voice. The record dips ever so slightly into post-Animal Collective arty-folk weirdness, but the point and poignancy isn’t lost. The end result is irresistible.

“On Kaddish, I think I was focused on death for a little while,” Silverstein says about the lyrics. “I had a sick grandmother. Letting go would, I guess, be [the idea].

“But the thing is I went from that, getting past some of that stuff, and the new EP is called Rejoice,” he continues. “I think my head was in a really specific place when I wrote those songs for Kaddish. Now they encompass a lot more.”

Lyrically, yes: “I wake in the morning, and make a joyous noise” goes “Rejoice,” among a good amount of similar minded things you probably don’t want to hear on a really bad day. But, just as important, the music has grown up and out as well, leaving that singer/songwriter core not much more than a ghost. That title track rises in a swirling current of distended sound, mingling and meeting and eventually coming together in several minutes of dreampop-qua-folk sublimity—think Jackie-O Motherfucker covering Beach House but twice as lovely.

Secret Mountains swear that, yes, there will eventually be a full album (hopefully including their delicious cover of Smokey Robinson’s “I Second That Emotion”). “It’s always somewhere in the back of our minds that a label could pick us up,” Silverstein says. “And that’s a nice thought, but beyond that we’re just happy to be doing it. The fact that I can just look forward to just, like, a band practice with this much joy is really important.”

“We just want to be something that’s enjoyable to listen to, something just pleasant,” Muccioli adds. “We don’t have any crazy message to our music. Just something joyful to listen to.”

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