Secret Mountains -- 'Rainer' (Friends)

RATING: *** out of 4 The relatively quick evolution of the Baltimore indie-rock six-piece Secret Mountains has felt swift and well-guided. The band began as a solo singer-songwriter project for guitarist Jeffrey Silverstein in 2008, and became an avant-folk duo when Silverstein met singer Kelly Laughlin while waiting for the light rail. A year later, Secret Mountains ballooned to six players. Since then, they've recorded EPs and played hundreds of shows, all while developing a distinct sound and voice. "Rainer," the sextet's debut full-length album, is the group's most accomplished record yet. At only seven songs, "Rainer" makes for a surprisingly dense listen. It's also challenging -- stop paying attention and the lush psychedelia melds with Laughlin's alto, resulting in a sound that washes over rather than engages or intrigues. But given full attention, "Rainer" rewards listeners with moody, slow-building songs that accelerate without notice. The unpredictable direction has aimless moments ("Golden Blue," which finds Laughlin pushing her voice upward with mixed results), but for the most part, the twists invigorate the project before things get too stagnant. Secret Mountains is at its best -- subtle, longing and even sexy -- midway through the 43-minute album. The potent trio of "Coasting," "Make Love Stay" and "High Horse" finds the band relishing quieter, less-aggressive moments. "Make Love Stay," the closest the act gets to a ballad, allows Laughlin's delicate vocals to shine without pretension. At the same time, the nimble interplay between the two guitarists becomes the highlight of the record's best song. Laughlin is the X-factor here. At times, her penchant to overextend notes can distract a listener, especially the type that enjoys parsing lyrics. (Good luck.) But her voice, which never demands the spotlight, can add texture and greater meaning. On "High Horse," Laughlin effortlessly turns a beautiful phrase ("Caught yourself laughing while death called your name") into a complicated image of mortality, humor and self-awareness. It's moments like this when Secret Mountains reminds listeners the challenge is worth it. -- Wesley Case
Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World