It almost feels wrong to stream Narrow Line—the newest album from Halifax folk duo Mama’s Broke—on Spotify, and not just because of the platform’s questionable politics: The vocal harmonies don’t fear a capella; fiddle and banjo crack open a songbook old enough to recall Appalachian and Eastern European stylings. This is music that feels ancient, and that’s before Lisa Maria and Amy Lou Keeler start singing about the cycles of life from birth to death.
But just as Sofia Coppola tucked Converse amongst bejewelled heels on set of Marie Antionette to shorthand a modern understanding, Maria and Keeler sing about being left waiting by beaus who are too busy smoking to meet them on the dance floor.
As much as you feel these songs must have been written by candlelight, you also won’t be able to stop listening to them in your air pods—and it’s this exact sense of era ambiguity that makes the album so strong. Without a sense of irony or detachment, this is folk with feeling—an intangible ingredient needed to make banjo music listenable or take rustic roots seriously. Thankfully, there’s never a moment where the musicians will let you think their genre choice is for a laugh. The music is as quietly commanding—as dead serious—as the titular Mama is dead broke.
It’s also absolutely addictive, a harmony-based lyrical volley as affirming as telling your woes to your smartest friend over coffee.
Maria and Keeler have spent the bulk of the past decade criss-crossing the Atlantic to play everything from DIY house shows to major festivals in locales as far-flung as Ireland and Indonesia. Legend (and their official bio) has it that the pair connected on a cross-country drive from Montreal to Halifax, a Kerouacian bonding experience that saw them discussing music throughout heavily forested stretches of highway. By the time they reached the best coast, they were a band, and 2017’s Count The Wicked saw a mould cast for fiercely emotional folk that skewed rustic.
Narrow Line is the band’s sophomore release and it doesn’t see the duo trying to recast fortune’s wheel. Instead, they kept what worked from the first record (song-driving harmonies; that un-ironic use of old-fashioned instruments; a visceral love for traditional roots music) and cranked up the saturation of the emotional palette. A vermillion rage that feels as long-simmered as the weird sister’s cauldron in Macbeth lets the pair play a fiery folk take on Fiona Apple while, at times, a cerulean lightness calls Acadian singer-songwriter Lisa LeBlanc’s twangiest moments to mind. Sheryl Crow fans who wish the rocker had’ve made good on her rural-roots affectations on The Globe Sessions will love the see-sawing fiddle that punctuates Narrow Line throughout.
"We can't hold it all/Our hands are just too small/Best we can do is break up time/And keep it on a narrow line" sing the pair on the album's title track. It's a mission made easier when the lines unspool as smoothly as this.
Mama's Broke Nova Scotian micro-tour:When: July 15
Where: Christ Church, 61 Dundas Street, Dartmouth
Tickets: Available now, starting at $16.93
Where: North Mountain United Tapestry, 3201 Long Point Road, Harbourville, NS
Tickets: $20 at the door