There are a number of elements that go into making a band a great band. Quality songwriting and engaging performances are certainly on the list. But one of the most basic pieces of that puzzle? A creative drummer. Four-on-the-floor is fine, of course. It has gotten a LOT of jobs done. Still, you can tell a band is going to be, at the very least, innovative and interesting, if any half-decent air drummer can’t catch the groove or hit the fills on their first couple of listens to a tune.
River Whyless has such a drummer in Alex McWalters. His rhythms come from various directions in various patterns, stuttering and staggering through each track. And the rest of River Whyless — Ryan O’Keefe (vocals, guitar), Halli Anderson (vocals, violin), and Daniel Shearin (vocals, bass, harmonium) — match his stride, pulling melodic riffs, vocal harmonies, and instrumental choices from a similarly vast expanse of worldly influences. From the Middle East to South Africa to Latin America and beyond, the Asheville-based quartet is the musical incarnation of “Think Global, Act Local.”
Recorded in Tornillo, Texas, the band’s latest offering, Kindness, A Rebel, examines what actually constitutes an act of dissent in such a polarized time as we currently find ourselves enduring. A quick scan of the song titles — including “Born in the Right Country,” “The Feeling of Freedom,” “New Beliefs,” and “War Is Kind” — ensures that the examination is a thoughtful and thorough one, often detailed through the eyes of the have-alls, rather than the have-nots.
“Born in the Right Country” cuts right to the chase. With lines like “manufactured truth is easy to sell” and “built on a system where some must fail,” the song pulls zero punches against white privilege and systemic inequality. With a breezy guitar pop backdrop, the narrator takes pride in his unearned privilege, proclaiming, “We’re built on the dreams we feed to the poor.”
Similarly, “New Beliefs” describes the strategy to keep poor people so tired, confused, and scared that they can’t muster the strength to rise up against their oppressors: “Keepin’ ’em busy with two, three jobs a day, so they don’t fill the street. My time is money. I won’t give ’em either one, but medicate to help them sleep, help them stay in our American dream.”
Time and again, the narrator says the quiet parts out loud. “War Is Kind” makes the case that war is not just a necessary evil, but an honorable undertaking; “Failing Farm” ticks through the slow death snapshots of a family’s failing farm; while “Darkness in Mind” tracks the unbridled ambition of someone who has forsaken their own integrity for a shot at wealth. In contrast to the last River Whyless record — We All the Light — there’s a lot of darkness and descent outlined in these songs used as means to the ends of decency and dissent.
As the album title suggests, true kindness requires intention and effort, compassion and courage. It is not a passive “live and let live” state of being. Rather, kindness is an active rebellion in times of fear, anger, and divide. And making music with that message is a wildly generous undertaking, especially when it’s as globally inspired as this one is.