Blond Bones’ 2016 “Few of Days” was an atypical debut, to say the least — a five-song concept EP centered around the struggles of a star-crossed southern family, a release that came off a bit like Flannery O’Connor as reimagined by circa-1981 R.E.M.
It was a lovely record, marked by stark, reverb-laden guitar lines and by bandleader Christian Barnett’s distinctive vocals — his voice recalling that of Demberist frontman Colin Meloy, a hang-dog mid-range baritone capable of modulating to a pitch-perfect high tenor when the moment is right.
It was lovely, true, but perhaps a bit precious, as evidenced by Barnett’s own feelings about the record. “When I started, I had this grand idea of this alt-country thing, probably because I felt like it’s what I should do, being from the South,” Barnett says. “So the EP had this dark Southern vibe to it.
“Now don’t get me wrong; I could probably sing every lyric of Johnny Cash’s Fulsom Prison record, but I felt like performing that kind of music wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
Thus Barnett approached his latest release — 2017’s two-song “Sierra” mini-EP — with a different mindset. And while the key elements that made “Few of Days” worth listening to — the ruminative songwriting, the beguiling reverb, and Barnett’s own voice — are still present on the new release, “Sierra” is marked by a subtle but significant tonal shift that makes it altogether more satisfying than its predecessor.
“This time, I didn’t set out saying, I’m going to write a country record,” Barnett says. “I sat down with the rest of the band, and we said, here are some chords, let’s see where they go. It was a much more organic process.”
A talented multi-instrumentalist who studied jazz with guitarist Mark Boling at the University of Tennessee, Barnett founded the Blond Bones as a backing band for local singer-songwriter Joey English, for whom Barnett had been playing drums. But when English took a brief hiatus from music, Blond Bones suddenly took on another life, as a vehicle for Barnett’s own songs.
For a while, Bones were more a musical collective than a proper band, with Barnett serving as the only steady member. Then English returned to the fold as a guitar player, forming a solid core membership along with Barnett, Joe Rebrovick and Daniel Ryan.
“Having a settled lineup has helped us a lot,” Barnett says. “Now everyone gets more involved with the songwriting. I still bring in the basics of the songs, but now the rest of the guys all have their input in shaping where they go.
“‘Sierra’ was more about me doing the music that I actually want to do, the music that has inspired me most as a listener. And I think that goes for the rest of the band, too.”
Though the difference is subtle, ‘Sierra’ is more distinctly a work of urban indie rock than its predecessor, with its Southern and rural shadings. And while both Bones’ releases are emotionally compelling in their own right, the expressiveness of “Sierra” seems more penetrating, unhindered by the artifice of “Few of Days'” unwieldy conceptual overlay.
“From my conversations with the other guys, we’re on the same page now musically,” Barnett says. “We want to make this work artistically and professionally. And artistically, what we want to do is tap into the subconscious and find the music, and let it be what it turns out to be.
“It’s an intense, intentional process, the way we write songs. We all take it seriously.”
Blond Bones will play Preservation Pub Monday, May 1, at 10 p.m.