A Family Affair
Concept albums are often scorned at, considered hokey gimmicks or forced attempts at creating high-handed, pretentious masterpieces. But The Family Tree: The Branches, the second installment in Radical Face’s Family Tree trilogy, is a concept album done right. The trilogy began with The Roots (2011), which lays out the story of a fictional family called the Northcotes in the first half of the nineteenth century. Radical Face (aka Floridian musician Ben Cooper, whose soft croon you may recognize from Electric President), explains on his website that he limited the instrumentation on The Roots to guitar, piano, a floor tom and vocals to reflect the Victorian era. The Branches, though, moves the narrative forward in time, pushing the music into a more modern realm as it follows the expanding generations onward.
The album begins with the spare, haunting “Gray Skies,” a brief introduction with high, wordless vocals and a single plucked guitar. Its minor melody and implied space sounds almost medieval, evoking the vaulted, cold heights of an ancient stone cathedral. “Holy Branches” then picks up with interweaving acoustic guitar and vocal melodies, accentuated by rich keys. It has the storytelling charisma of the Mountain Goats, but with more restraint. “The Mute” shows off this same narrative skill, with Cooper taking on the persona of a mute child over a folksy acoustic guitar and shuffling beat. “Reminders,” likewise, finds Cooper adopting the perspective of a hapless, hopeless family member: “So it’s better if you were on your way, / If you were somewhere far from me.”
This somewhat melancholy tone reappears on “The Crooked Kind,” where a warm piano and finger-picked guitar accompany Cooper as he sings about liars and crooks. A rich violin sweeps in, giving the song a kind of western mountain feel, as if you should be seeing a panoramic view of snow-capped peaks glinting in the sun beyond rolling plains. The song shows off Cooper’s strength in composition, building and building to crescendoes, only to drop back down to a single acoustic guitar, before finally letting the keys, percussion, and vocals return in a big, triumphant refrain.
This can also be seen in “Southern Snow” and “The Gilded Hand,” which begins with tapping and clanking percussion and a light, hard-edged guitar playing a minor, folksy melody below Cooper’s wavering vocals, and slowly layering on keys and strings. The closing track, “We All Go The Same,” is a fitting end to the album. Its hummed, choral vocals are reminiscent of a hymn sung in a large, airy church, and the intimate vocals and accordion make this song about the great equalizer of death sound like an old Celtic or Nordic ballad. “Some of us will be dreamers, though others just fade away / But in the end we all leave the same,” Cooper sings, as the song picks up into a lush crescendo with big, crashing percussion.
But the album is far from gloomy, as a whole. There’s “Summer Skeletons,” which, despite its name, resurrects a sepia-toned, nostalgic summer story with clapping percussion, bright keys, strings, and low, strummed guitars that make for a kind of feel-good poppy folk. “Chains” may appear to be one of the darker tracks in its first few moments, but it turns out to be a tale of lasting friendship; “I’m glad you were my friend,” Cooper repeats, over and over, in the track’s last moments.
Maybe the reason The Branches works so well as a concept album is that you don’t necessarily have to know that it’s a concept album: it plays just as well, and evokes its atmosphere just as fully, without really alluding to the overarching family saga. It will be interesting to follow the Northcotes into their latest generation, and modernity, on the trilogy’s third and final installment.