Balto’s first album, October’s Road, is that rare album that is grounded in a single, sustained experience, and uses the entire length of an LP to explore it. Singer-songwriter and guitarist Daniel Sheron just released, in his words, a “song cycle” that explores his seven months spent in Moscow and Eastern Russia; it’s as much about Russia itself as the state of sustained travel in a truly strange land.
The album’s music is stylistically grounded in bluegrass and American folk-rock: instrumentally there’s a guitar, upright bass, banjo, mandolin, and drum set. The fully acoustic lineup is a smart choice: it lends the LP an authentic Appalachian sound. From time to time the songs can drift without a clear, precise enough musical drive, and sometimes I want more energy, or at least a little more percussive drive, but this isn’t totally necessary; it’s a minor qualm. For the most part, Balto successfully channels some of the best folk-rock from the golden era. There were more than a couple moments at which it was reminiscent of Neil Young, during his “Cripple Creek Ferry” days. My favorite moments are when Sheron takes the time to arrange multi-voice harmony. “The Railyard” is a great example: it manages to occasionally channel parts of the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack. No small praise.
When it comes to the words, we’ve heard many of the lyrics on love before, and for the most part they are solid, if occasionally nondescript. But unlike the typical indie-rock subject matter, this album isn’t just about love, it’s about being lost in a desolate, alien world. His words really stand out when it comes to the album’s (literal) geography – it’s fascinating to hear music written about – and in – Siberia. You really feel like you’re on the train from Moscow to the Urals at points in this album. It’s sincere, and surprisingly mature for a first album. It’s also a refreshing break from the typical “I’m lost in my mid-twenties in a major American city” or maybe at most “I had a great road trip” that seems to occupy a disproportionate space in the minds of today’s songwriters.
I’m tempted to say October’s Road is good “for a first album.” It would be very easy to dismiss it as just another Neutral Milk Hotel wannabe. (Not that I particularly consider them something to aspire to.) And it’s true that Balto has some growing to do – they’re not perfect by any means. I’d particularly like to see them take the next step in production for their next album: a few extra days in a quality studio, to give it less of a lo-fi sound, would have been welcome. But the reality is that it’s good by any standard; a truly solid debut. Continue on this trajectory, and the sky’s the limit.