Michigan’s Original Brothers and Sisters of Love’s anachronistic blend of modern sensibilities with such traditional forms of music as heroic ballads and sea chanteys predated the similar Decemberists by a few years, but the Brothers and Sisters never approached the Portland band’s level of popularity. If the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy sometimes comes across as a bard entertaining royalty, Brothers (and brothers) Timothy and Jamie Monger are resolutely working-class sorts, more at home mending fishing nets than hanging out at the mansion. The Mongers do for Great Lakes balladry what the Pogues did for Celtic music and Danielson does for Protestant tent-revival music, lovingly drawing on tradition to reinterpret it for a modern audience.
The Legende of Jeb Minor is a charming debut, full of well-crafted originals that sound simultaneously contemporary and timeless. The Mongers wrote them, but most feel like they’ve been sung by sailors plying the Great Lakes for centuries. The title track and “The Bird Song” are especially great, modern chanteys that make you want to up for the merchant marine — imagine “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” filtered through an indie-rock sensibility. Even the songs that don’t feel generations old view life through the lens of history and tradition. “Nailed to the Body of Lincoln” tells the tale of an alluring girl for whom the Lincoln assassination is a metaphor for everything, while “The Ice Cream Hat” and “The Rich People Across the River” are exemplars of witty songwriting and intricate musicianship.
H.O.M.E.S. Vol. 1 (named for a mnemonic used to teach children the Great Lakes) continues to explore the traditions of the upper Midwest, but is more land-based than the nautical Jeb Minor. The music is more rock oriented than on the debut, recalling XTC or Neutral Milk Hotel more often than Gordon Lightfoot — only “Foreman of the Mill” and “Highway 2” openly resemble folk. It’s not as striking or as original as Jeb Minor, but as a whole H.O.M.E.S. is the superior album, overflowing with well-written and -performed songs.
The departure of violinist (and sole Sister of Love) Liz Auchinvole prompted a name change to the more literally descriptive Great Lakes Myth Society. The eponymous disc under the new band name delves into the life and lore of Michigan as thoroughly as homeboy Sufjan Stevens did with his similar opus dedicated to the Wolverine state. Salt trucks, lake effect weather conditions, the northern lights and various Michigan counties all provide inspiration for the Society’s music, which is a bit more standard folk-rock. The Great Lakes Myth Society is the musical equivalent of a good Cornish pasty — a hearty regional dish uniquely representative of its surroundings.