Over the past 10 years, the growing popularity of folk rock led to a stagnation of musical progress. Artists such as the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons brought the genre to the forefront, booking huge venues and topping charts. Yet bands of this notoriety do little more than tap into well-rehearsed sounds, rarely trying something new. With just a few dashes echoing guitar strums, a pinch of lofty vocals and a single, dramatic piano solo, anyone can have a hit folk song. For the smaller bands in the genre, this presents an interesting dilemma: either stand out and risk failure, or stick to the recipe.
With their newest album How to: Friend, Love, Freefall, the up-and-coming Rainbow Kitten Surprise somehow does both. The North Carolina-based band had a slow rise to fame since its inception in 2013, but with its almost completely sold-out tour and appearances at Austin City Limits and this year’s Outside Lands, this small, Southern group is making an — albeit ridiculous — name for itself in the genre.
On their best album yet, Rainbow Kitten Surprise explores and presents a hybrid existence. Its music easily slides between genres, because the band itself slides between contemporary American identities. Lead singer and songwriter Sam Melo uses the album to present his proud Southern heritage, his same-gender relationship and his upbringing in Dominican culture.
This is not just a lyrical exploration, but a musical one. Mixing rhythmic, soulful tones with heavy percussion and Melo’s own unique, Southern intonations provide a musical amalgamation of the band’s identity. In any given song, Rainbow Kitten Surprise mixes R&B with gospel and rap with reggae, with still enough indie and rock inflections thrown in for the fans the band attracted with its original folk sound.
Perhaps the best example of this unique concoction is the beautiful cacophony “When It Lands.” Beginning with a soft, low build to a harmonious, standard Rainbow Kitten Surprise chorus, the song quickly jumps into the second verse, matching its snare-drum-punctuated word play with light-speed lyrics. The result is, in a word, brilliant.
The standout of the album, “It’s Called: Freefall,” uses Melo’s Dominican background in its enunciation and vocals. These aspects underpin the song with their traditional beats and backup harmonies, highlighting the brilliance of the unconventional mix.
There’s more depth and grit here than in the band’s previous two albums. Rainbow Kitten Surprise has established and cemented its sound, and here it gets the chance to play around. And drummer Jess Haney experiments the most. His bass heartbeat breaks open “Mission to Mars,” adding cymbal rings so soft the mic could only have been touching the brass. The snare gets its playtime in “Recktify,” where it backs the fastest vocals on the album but meanwhile exposes the limits of the band’s musical range.
“Hide” mixes the guitar strum effortlessly with its quiet tap of drum sticks, adding a funk-esque groove of country R&B and a beautiful gospel chorus. As Melo sings of hiding his sexuality from his family, he draws from his own experience set against the culture of the Deep South. Released with a beautiful and tear-jerking music video following several drag queens in New Orleans, the album makes a space for critical conversations regarding the paradigm of Southern pride against often-characterized Southern prejudice.
Throughout the album, its production remains stunning. Guitars twang and crunch as if the listener were present in the recording studio. Even better, the room-next-door distortion of “Possum Queen” and the 23-second, a capella album intro “Pacific Love” bring the album into a completely different space — one wholly out of this world.
But this is characteristic of every song. “Matchbox” is a walk at dusk through a big city, street lights just coming on, headphones on to catch the panning between earbuds. The piano solo and gentle echo of “Polite Company” bring us to an empty bar past last call, the pianist revealing his heart to the silence of the night, complete with mic squeaks and page turns. As the final song on the album, sung almost completely by Melo, it’s the founder’s spotlight. His defining vocal whines and howls remind us why we listen to Rainbow Kitten Surprise in the first place.
Yet the stage is not Melo’s alone. After 10 seconds of silence, a unexpected, baked-in encore brings other members back in, vocally and instrumentally, culminating the album with the band’s all-but-patented soulful harmonies. It’s an exploration of discovery, musicality, spirituality and individuality — a how-to guide for self-acceptance.
Though its genre may thrive through formula, Rainbow Kitten Surprise brings originality back in force.