God and Country Music: Ivan & Alyosha

God and Country Music: Ivan & Alyosha February 27, 2013

Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music.

Yesterday, Seattle folk-pop band Ivan & Alyosha released their debut album, All the Times We’ve Had. Now, I’ve got to confess, I am hooked on this band right now so everything I say is in the context of “gushing fan.” However, Ivan & Alyosha have something special to offer the American music scene. And with the rising popularity of Americana music, I have high hopes for Ivan & Alyosha’s career.

All of my biases aside, this band is special. Ivan & Alyosha have been making music together for a few years now and have released a couple EPs and singles here and there, but All the Times We’ve Had is their first full-length undertaking. Their sound is simple, poppy, and earthy at times, then complex, introspective, and almost mystical at other times. They have the accessibility of bands like The Head and the Heart or The Decemberists with instrumentation that is reminiscent of newer Wilco or Ryan Adams. Really, Ivan & Alyosha are just a mix of the best parts of Seattle’s music indie-rock scene and Americana songwriting. And it’s an absolute treat.

Named after brothers Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the band’s spiritual thread is presented much like the spirituality of Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece itself; hidden in plain sight.

In the band’s namesake, Dostoyevsky paints a picture that is both subtle and bold. Parts of the great narrative say exactly what is meant. Sometimes the Russian Monk Zossima, the narrator, and the saintly son Alyosha speak in unmistakably direct proverbs that paint for the soul a great landscape of truth and beauty. Other times, Dostoyevsky talks almost in code, leaving the reader to labor over meaning. Like a rich gold mine, Dostoyevsky gives up some of his treasure right away and hides some in deep, deep caverns. And from my listens to Ivan & Alyosha, the band has pulled more than a name from The Brother’s Karamazov.

Part of what makes Ivan & Alyosha so wonderful is simply the impressive instrumentation and arrangement. On the iTunes free download of the week, “Running for Cover” (seriously, it’s free, you have no reason not to get it), the acoustic guitar and the harmonies give it a beautifully serene feel, reminding me of the way I felt the first time I heard Mumford & Sons “The Cave”—I would say I felt somewhat enveloped.

But the gold is in the lyrics. Some stick out like the proverbs of Zossima, like in “Don’t Wanna Die Anymore”:

“Don’t call me home just yet / it’s the Good Lord and the Devil doing battle for my soul / the likes of which you’d never know”

or in “Running For Cover,” when I started to cry a bit just typing out the lyrics:

“If I could see the garden place / before the Fall, when things have changed / I wasn’t there, but I take the blame as you should too my friend”

That lyric in particular reminds me of a passage in The Brothers Karamazov, where Father Zossima declares—in humility that I do not yet possess—”I am responsible for the guilt of all.”

But some of the lyrics bury their beauty deep in the abstract or the mundane. These lyrics chew at you until they have had their way with you, much like the passages in The Brothers Karamazov that take place in the surreal world of Ivan’s dreams or the Spanish Inquisition.

Such lines in “Fathers Be Kind” and “The Fold,” respectively, haven’t finished with me quite yet:

“Dreamers spend some time awake / please don’t forsake what’s in front of you”

“And the only way to see it / is to believe that it’s there”

While the album is quite wonderful, what is even more wonderful is how these guys seem to have channeled the heart of Dostoyevsky in their art. This album is as spiritual as it is accessible, a tension that is hard to get just right. I hate to call something “the next big thing,” but if they are, it will be a great victory for the spiritual condition of popular music. Just as The Brothers Karamazov was some 130 years ago, Ivan & Alyosha sketch the restless soul of a culture quickly changing through vivid spiritual and human pictures.

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