River Whyless didn’t set out to make a political album. It just turned out that way. Well, sort of. Mixed in with the perplexed commentary, is the routine remedies of surviving the banality of life on the road – too many parties, getting high, drunk, laid – as in the opening trippy track ‘All Of My Friends’ and later, ‘Another Shitty Party’.

River Whyless

However, as chance would have it, in the months before the jaw-dropping shame of the border detention centres hit the headlines and flooded the public consciousness, River Whyless was writing and recording their new album at Sonic Ranch Studios in Tornillo, Texas.

From the studio, they could see Mexico – or rather, “the wall”. It seemed, they said, a fitting place to make a record about living in America.

In this scenario, kindness becomes an act of rebellion. In a world where values once enshrined as common humanity and decency are being belittled, ridiculed and undermined, where shared immunity to hate-fuelled rhetoric and reporting – not even attempting to dress up as blatant propaganda – is seeping into society, it is inevitably the poets, musicians, and artists who reflect the truth.

River Whyless is four friends from North Carolina; Ryan O’Keefe on vocals and guitar, Halli Anderson on vocals and violin, Daniel Shearin on vocals, bass, and harmonium, and Alex McWalters on drums. They have a lot to say and to be fair, it’s best said in this rather intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate and oddly beautiful album.

Their press statement speaks volumes and captured the essence perfectly:

The four of us spent much of 2017 trying to understand what’s happening, and why, and how we might help to make it better. When politics becomes about winning for winning’s sake, violence becomes inevitable. But violence is easy. It’s natural, predictable, cliché. Kindness is much harder. It requires patience in the face of ignorance, it asks that we swallow our pride, subdue our egos and admit that our convictions are never absolute. Kindness rebels against the base and the complacent, rejects the parts of us that are prone to pettiness, greed and self-pity – it defies the lesser self that lives in each of us.

‘Born In The Right Country’ is about Trump and that immigration policy. ‘I Am Your New King’ finds that manufactured truth is easy to sell, and it’s easy to break through if you have the “right skin”, “right god”, or are born in the “right country”.

The melodic ‘Motel 6’ changes the theme somewhat, to lost lovers, loneliness, and life on the road. The tempo changes again for ‘Van Dyke Brown’, upbeat and earthy, with a definite Paul Simon vibe, one of the best tracks on ‘Kindness, A Rebel’.

(By the way, Van Dyke brown is a dark colour named after the painter Anthony van Dyck, a paint originally made from peat and soil).

‘Failing Farm’ is a politically interesting track. It doesn’t hold back. The horror of modern animal farming is graphically exposed in the lyrics. Death and decay dressed up as everyday food production.

Followed briskly with a linked theme in ‘New Beliefs’, examining the American dream and the time-is-money ethos.

Isn’t it strange when you see but don’t believe. Maybe we’re in need of new beliefs.

Even the ancient, out-moded notion of the divine right of kings gets a look in on this album:

I’ve been elected by the good Lord.

River Whyless is asking all the right questions on this album – and so, it requires careful listening. What does it take to retain the American dream and just how easy it is to be fooled?

Most of all, River Whyless is asking America to question its own psyche to see what lies beneath.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. ‘The Feeling Of Freedom’ refreshingly reminds us of the simple things in life like the wind on your face and the wide open road, open hearts, and open minds.

‘War Is Kind’ is another of the stand out tracks on ‘Kindness, A Rebel’.

Do not weep child. War is kind.

This could be an anthem for the children parted from their parents at the detention centres or in Syrian refugee camps.

You can’t believe your eyes, when you find them.

This could be straight from the rebellion of the sixties; calling out America’s blind side.

Feeling like an outsider is explored in ‘Another Shitty Party’. It’s being out of place, awkward and that curious mix of wanting to belong and wanting to be anywhere else but here.

While River Whyless is often described as a folk band, this is and isn’t that. It’s not one to label or pin down neatly but what I love about ‘Kindness, A Rebel’ is just that – the tackling head on tough themes. There is method in the kindness – a new kind of rebel.

This is an album that’s speaking up. I think we’ll see much more of that from the artistic community in the months and years to come.

‘Kindness, A Rebel’ in out now on Roll Call Records.