It’s an unconventional name for an unconventional sound. Zindle and her cohorts stir up a style-shifting row on their debut, Yes Nearby, with such enthusiasm, confidence, sincerity, and skill that it’s not hard to imagine them growing up to be one of those beloved bands of spirit and substance like Over the Rhine and The Innocence Mission. Attention, dispirited fans of the now-defunct Sixpence None the Richer: You can stop crying now.
But there’s a sort of playfulness in the music too that none of those bands exhibit. Songs dash along with blitzes of lickety-split banjo-and-bluegrass, then morph into tricky hand-clap rhythms and bum-bum-ba-dum singalongs, and suddenly darken and twist into eastern drones with the lyrics of echoing prayers. At first listen, it can take a while for the songs to sink their hooks in; but listen to it twice, and then a third time… turn it up… and you’ll find that the ambitious, complex, multi-layered rhythms become irresistible. Yes Nearby has an endearingly homemade quality to it, but if the Ragbirds get the attention of the right producer—Calling T-Bone Burnett!—their next album could be a major breakthrough.
Zindle’s voice strikes a sort of happy medium between the triangular points of Karin Bergquist’s blow-out-the-back-wall power and Amy Grant’s smooth pop sincerity. What she lacks in vocal distinction she makes up for with the force of her personality and perspective, which is clearly the driving force of the album. She’s front and center from beginning to end, only occasionally accented with backing vocals (most memorably in “Adoration,” where she swaps verses with seven-year-old Darby Horne). And in some songs, such a “Picture,” she’s also responsible for the mandolin, violin, dunun, and percussion.
She has good help too, from guitarist Adam Lambeaux. Multi-instrumentalist Randall Moore lends international flavors with performances on darbukka, djembe, dunun, talking drum, congas, and other varying percussion.
“Low Flying” is a prodigal’s lament, in which she croons over the restless fiddles, “Delirious with weariness and confusion / I fly a hundred miles from home with no conclusions.” In “Love’s Great Joke,” she further affirms her own insufficiencies: “My word is worth a mouthful of ashes and smoke.” And in the reggae pulse of “Narcissick,” she’s so blue that everything in the world seems like it’s her fault, including “wild fires in the west, wild storms in the east.”All of these songs circle the suffering Christ who supports, who eludes our feeble definitions, who remains the only satisfying source of help. In “Picture,” Zindle sings, “I drew a picture / You were a thousand warriors defending my city / Then I saw a picture / You were a horse, a beast of burden / And we were the weight on your shoulders.” The groovy singalong “Tipi Baya” finds her shopping for solutions at the market, the courthouse, and the church, only to be disappointed by merchants of false hope.
Like the traveler in Pilgrim’s Progress, she’s clearly fed up with Vanity Fair. “Door in the Wall” is one of the album’s peaks—a pop powerhouse with so much soul it should be immediately covered by Joan Osborne. Punctuated by smart backing vocals, she sings about the nature of American pop culture to lull our sensibilities to sleep until we’re too numb to be moved by artists or truth. And in “Totem Pole,” she begs to be reminded of her “salvaged soul”: “You found me there, alive in the ashes.”
This leads to the album’s most inspiring flourishes: The soaring, echoing prayer of “Adoration” (“I am bursting with confessions/ Open up your ear to me/ Have mercy,” which leads to the loop-laced vow, “Now that I have seen the face of my Friend / I will not confuse or misplace my worship again.”
The album accelerates into a euphoric spirit-lifting anthem called “Believe It,” where she testifies, “I’d like to fly south, but I’m a Yankee bird/ Born in blankets of snow in Buffalo/ I’ve made a little nest in Michigan/ Where there’s plenty of hope for me/ To start again.” And in a piano meditation that recalls Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood,” she draws straight from scripture: “Have we understood that God is love/ And everywhere his lips confess his strategies?” Zindle brings back the festive combination of mandolin, violin, tin whistles, and bells to end with a surge of hope and celebration: “I see you’ve found your voice/ And are singing again/ I see you’ve found your pulse/ And are breathing again.” Both singer and listeners have found rejuvenation. And patient, attentive listeners have a feast that will last them for many months to come.