‘Rivers in the Wasteland’ album review

In 2010, few people would have recognized the small but powerfully present three-piece folk band opening for the North American leg of Taylor Swift on her international Speak Now tour. Touring their third full-length album, The Outsiders, the group NEEDTOBREATHE has come far since then, not only winning a Dove award for a song on their 2011 album, “Keep Your Eyes Open,” but as of April 15, they have released a fifth full-length album entitled Rivers in the Wasteland, and played for both the Late Show and Ellen.

That track called “The Heart” is the seventh of 11, and is one of a few that incorporates the characteristic folk drive, but not to the point of abusing it. In like manner, “Oh, Carolina” carries the album through a transition into a more laid back type of folk, reliant on the backline acoustic strings and piano, mixed with soothing vocality. But before being concerned with the back half of the album, the first four songs in particular are equally or even more noteworthy.

Breaking tradition set by four albums preceding, vocalist Bear (Yes, you did read that correctly) Rinehart starts out with a devilishly laid back and simple front track. “Wasteland,” rivaling “Feet, Don’t Fail Me Now” and “Difference Maker” for my personal favorite, is essentially just him and his guitar for the whole song. He demonstrates this capability of captivation without sincere amount of effort by doing this, and keeps the audience on their toes stylistically.This primarily happens through two stylistic curveballs the band throws early in the album. “State I’m in” throws out a never-before executed in the band’s history three-part harmony, accompanied by a tom-heavy almost indie drum beat. Thereafter, “Feet, Don’t Fail Me Now” take a galloping type beat added to an aesthetic contemporary jazz progression with rock guitars and vocals. These are monumental steps forward for the songwriting ability of the group (namely frontmen brothers Bear and Bo Rinehart), who have stuck with a comfortable sound for the past two albums.

Although it’s a seemingly different and new sound, NEEDTOBREATHE is by no means reinventing itself on Rivers. While these are some very bold moves in new directions, they’re realistically just developments in the alt. folk genre that they’ve come to own since their second album from 2007. The album holistically clings to the normal musical stylings of the group with a varied and exciting execution.

Disregarding the style and sound, “Difference Maker” is easily the salient song because of the effectiveness of communicating the meaning of the song between songwriter and audience. Satirically, the song communicates a message of humility by proclaiming “I am the difference maker/… and I am the friendliest of friends of God.” For the band, this song is about not letting their capabilities as a group go to their head, something that a band that has been together for 16 years would naturally be struggling with. Bear says in his Spotify Track-by-Track commentary that the initial love for each other and love for performance had begun to wear off, and the arrogance in their ability started to seep through. “Difference Maker” is the first introspective song, and the way it is written does an excellent job of communicating his thoughts and feelings in a clever and captivating way.

That’s the ultimate truth behind album creation and songwriting: it’s not all style points. Staying humble, aware, and sticking to the things that impact your life are what define a good songwriter, and therefore deserve to be factored into what makes an album good as well. Even after a big step into a larger audience and setting as openers for the Speak Now tour, NEEDTOBREATHE never abandoned their beginning as a very spiritually influenced band, apparent because of their lyrical choices on all five of their albums. Even in their umbrella genre of generally depressed or cynical songwriters, they maintain a positive sound, and because they stuck to it, they own in both in and out of the studio.

If you’re not sold on Rivers, I’d advise you to go over to another tab and watch a few of their live performances. Because when I say they own their sound outside of the studio, I mean they own it. Especially in recent years (I’m speculating here), the vocal presence of the group has become exceptional, simply because of some added vocal training to a unique, jazzy voice that Rinehart sings with, which definitely improved after their last album before this, The Reckoning. And if you’re still not sold, the band will be touring in St. Louis at the Pageant on June 13 this summer.

It’s safe to say that if you enjoy alternative, folk, or even just outstanding live performances, NEEDTOBREATHE’s Rivers in the Wasteland is a good option for you.

Parkway West Pathfinder gives Rivers in the Wasteland an 8.2/10.