There are some voices that reach out through the speakers and beg everyone in the room to stop their conversations for a moment and just listen. Elephant Revival’s Daniel Rodriguez has such a voice. It’s a timeless folk voice, deep and hearty, weathered but comforting, hitting the notes that need to be hit and missing the ones that would sound better a little bit off. If Townes Van Zandt lost a little bit of his Texas twang and a whole lot of his crippling insecurities, he would sound a lot like Daniel Rodriguez.
Rodriguez contributes three-and-a-half songs to the Nederland folk collective Elephant Revival’s sophomore effort Break in the Clouds, and these songs elevate the album from a good but uneven collection of folk songs to one of the year’s most pleasantly surprising releases (to be fair, Rodriguez also co-wrote the weakest song on the album, the plodding opener “Point of You”). Each of the band’s five members contributed at least two tracks to Break in the Clouds, and the result is a crash course in Americana that runs the gamut from Celtic instrumentals and Kentucky bluegrass to the more contemporary sounds of coffeehouse folk and “guy with a guitar” pop-folk. It can be difficult to digest at times, as the something-for-everyone approach inevitably means that no one will be satisfied by every musical whim that Elephant Revival follows, but it’s a testament to the band’s tremendous musicianship and uncompromising spirit that they are able to distill so many different genres into something resembling a coherent album.
Break in the Clouds owes much of that coherence to Bridget Law’s versatile fiddle playing. Amidst a rotating cast of singers and a liberal amount of genre-hopping through the last two centuries of folk, Law’s fiddle serves as a much-needed anchor, shifting to accommodate the ever-changing mood of the album while contributing enough of its own consistent narrative to provide context to all that genre-hopping. It’s plaintive and desolate in the haunting Celtic instrumental “Ancient Sea,” it highlights the bittersweet nostalgia of “Asleep With the Light On,” and it brackets Bonnie Paine’s lovely voice perfectly with a high, lonesome sound on the bluegrass title track.
Coincidentally, it is the title track, which kicks off the superior second half of the album, that signifies Break in the Clouds’ shift from rainy day folk to the sunny exuberance of a barnyard jug band. The second half of the album is a looser affair, stuffed with the sideways charm of a group of friends sitting around a campfire, passing a bottle and trading songs. The members of Elephant Revival describe their music as “Transcendental Folk,” and they seem to align themselves with the new school of folk music, but the second half of Break in the Clouds is as traditional as it gets. In a way, they have a lot more in common with the neo-traditionalist sensibilities of groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops than the lofty new-grass jamming of that other Nederland folk band they are often compared to, Yonder Mountain String Band. Everyone trades instruments, every sings, everyone contributes songs and everyone has a good time doing it. Daniel Rodriguez may carry the first half of the album with his attention-grabbing voice and songwriting, but it’s the second half of Break in the Clouds that really showcases Elephant Revival as a band: joyful, beautiful, humble and a hell of a lot of fun.