Pawns or Kings: This is How I Heard Their Album

This piece is a bit of a departure for me. First, I am not a music writer, and part of the mission statement of this blog is to never fall into traditional reviews. I’m too clumsy with musical terms to write in that way, and I have little interest in rating anyone on some arbitrary scale. Instead, I’m an enthusiastic appreciator of how the music we listen to wraps itself into our lives. The story, the experience — that’s what I’m interested in.

A few weeks back, when my essay on The Avett Brothers went up, a band contacted me on Twitter asking me to listen to their album, on the basis that they were similar to TAB. I bookmarked the link, and as I am wont to do, forgot for awhile. I had perused their Twitter timeline, and this band has its hustle ON. They reach out to a lot of people, and they appear to be genuinely working hard to get their music out to people who may like them. I’m a bit of a marketing nerd so I always appreciate DIYers husttttlin’. 🙂

While I feel uncomfortable “reviewing” music, I do like writing about the experience – the discovery of something new. I may just be obsessing over semantics, but it assuages my anxiety about approaching this piece. This is a band that captured me, and this is how I heard their album.

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They are Pawns or Kings, and the album is Pomme de Terre. I streamed the album here. From their Bandcamp page:

Pawns or Kings is a band characterized by honesty and emotion. Their music embodies the feeling of the Ozark Mountains in the Midwestern US. They are a 4 piece that utilizes driving banjo coupled with 3 part harmonies. Their debut, self produced, album “Letters to Lucy” made waves on radio stations across the globe. Their next full release “Pomme de Terre” was released to much acclaim.

Also, their Twitter bio: “Our music is the equivalent of a bag of beard hair put in a blender with the red wood forest.”

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Because they compared themselves to The Avett Brothers, I expected banjo and perhaps rambunctious riffs. I think they made that comparison to get my attention (hey, it succeeded), and there is plenty of crossover room for fans of TAB to find in Pawns or Kings; there is no shortage of strong banjo, lovely harmonies, and thoughtful lyrics.

I personally think they do a disservice to themselves with that comparison, however. Pawns or Kings’ music is more rooted in folk, a quieter listen than TAB. Several highlights stick out to me. They layer in their harmonies quite deftly, as if an additional instrument, especially in the first track “Names and Maps.” The vocal delivery and melody in “The River Will Rise” have hauntingly stuck with me, and that may be my favorite song on the album. The banjo line in the title track “Pomme de Terre” is lovely, and that song gave me my favorite line too: “Everyone has to move on sometime and that is life, but never move away from what you’ve learned.” Amen.

But the most impressive story here is of this album as a whole. I’ve long been ready to overthrow the idea of the album as the standard unit of musical releases. Digital music’s criminal heyday (think Napster and the like, before the prosecutions) was also my formative years. For at least a decade, I’ve built my music library on my terms, downloading individual songs (I do it legally now!), building playlists, picking and choosing what I want. I rarely listen to an album beginning to end, and I’m much more likely to shuffle a bunch of songs from a single artist than to listen to songs laid out the way the artist designed, even though deep down, I know that’s a slight betrayal to the artist’s original intentions.

Sometimes, though, an album is better than a sum of its parts, and I feel like Pomme de Terre fits that bill. It’s a well-built musical narrative. Natural imagery permeates the lyrics, and at least to me, the music follows suit. Sometimes building up a mountain, sometimes flowing through a river bed, sometimes a slow hike. This is music to write to, which for me is a special category. I usually put a song on repeat when I’m writing (most often “Empty” by Ray LaMontagne), something moody but quiet. Something that invades my brain with inspiration, yet is also unobtrusive. This is an album that can do that. My own words can ride through my brain on these melodies and take a shape I couldn’t formulate on my own.

For that, I’m grateful they tweeted me, and I’m glad I finally remembered to follow up. I found that pomme de terre means a few things; literally, it is “heart of the earth,” and it is also a state park in Missouri (the band hails from the Ozarks). Very fitting for the earthy, auditory hike that is this album. I encourage you to give it a listen!

Check it: Stream the album. Pawns or Kings on Twitter and on Facebook.


By Amanda
Read more from Amanda here and on Twitter: @aaahmanda.