On “Armies,” the album by the Portland duo of the same name, the vocals are as closely intertwined as tree roots. At times, they are hard to parse apart. They weave around each other, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in unity. Those voices are the centerpiece, of course, of what may be a one-off album between two distinctive voices in Maine music: Dave Gutter and Anna Lombard.
Armies began as a commercial project of Gutter’s — known throughout New England as the frontman for Rustic Overtones — that was destined to be backing music for film and TV, featuring male and female folk vocals. Eventually, however, it became clear that the songs he was writing were taking on a life of their own, and that’s when Lombard (Gypsy Tailwind and solo projects) came into the picture.
Though duo and group vocals continue to be the hot thing right now, they tend to be placed in either a cutesy folk setting or in a shout-along pop setting — not in the throwback, soulful alt-rock Gutter and Lombard trade in on “Armies,” and certainly not with the melodic deftness on display here. Both Gutter and Lombard know their voices and trust their voices, and clearly feel comfortable going the extra expressive mile. They compliment each other very well, and they know it, which gives them carte blanche to go in whatever direction they want.
There’s a stylistic freedom throughout the album’s twelve tracks — from the fun, funereal oom-pah of the title track, to the 1967-by-way-of-1996 swirling sitar of “Trust In the Universe,” to a guest verse from rapper Spose on “At Home” (man, that guy gets around). The thudding percussive samples of “Chemistry” swing with stylish purpose, while “Strangers” holds back and lets the song burn out slowly. As with Gutter’s main band, Rustic Overtones, soul, rock and pop all play nicely with one another, as on the passionate “All the Way Love,” though with Armies, hip hop and electronic elements find their way in as well, like on the skittering beats of “Matador.”
Conceptually, “Armies” is almost entirely about love, in all its complicated, difficult beauty. Often, the love discussed in the lyrics on “Armies” is more about the grappling with, less about the enjoyment of, love — the loss of it, the having of it despite being lied to or cheated on, the often destruction nature of it. It makes for a far more entertaining listen, because it’s messy. It’s not easy. It’s hard. Give me one album that doesn’t pull any emotional punches over five albums that hide behind artifice and cool.
“Armies” is available at Bull Moose Music, to download on iTunes or to stream on Spotify.