29 Mar 2016

Drinking From A Salt Pond by Run River North

From The Sampler, 7:35 pm on 29 March 2016
Run River North

Run River North Photo: Catie Laffoon

Nick Bollinger reviews an electric second album from Korean-American folk rockers Run River North.

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A Korean-American indie-folk band. That sounds like it has the potential to be something a bit different, and that potential was in evidence on Run River North, the self-titled debut of this young quintet from Los Angeles’ Koreatown. But that was two years ago, and on their second album it appears that Run River North have rethought their approach.

The first record was largely acoustic, with Alex Hwang’s balladic singing and the faintly eastern touches of Jennifer Rim’s violin suggesting an Oriental Mumford and Sons. It wasn’t super-original, but at the heart of the music was an experience that gave the group a real point of difference: Run River North are the sons and daughters of immigrants, and their family stories seemed to be the starting point for many of the songs. Hwang has said that, for the new album, the focus of the writing became more personal, focusing on relationships than histories. But that’s hardly been the most drastic development.

For Drinking From A Salt Pond, Run River North have gone from a substantially acoustic outfit to one that’s not just electrified but pumped up with the aural equivalent of steroids.

I’ll grant them this: Run River North can write an anthem. It’s not hard to picture a huge swaying crowd singing along, football-style, to these choruses. But neither is it in the least bit original - a cross between early Arcade Fire and the previously-invoked Mumfords.

Even with the high production, it’s pretty clear that Run River North are super-competent players, so it’s a pity they haven’t put their skills to more imaginative use. But it is as though they have banished from their frame of reference anything beyond the most obvious crossover moments from the last decade of indie rock.

I find myself reflecting on Los Lobos. Like Run River North they are Californians, and the children of immigrants – in their case from neighbouring Mexico. In their formative years they mastered the dominant styles of the day; the rock and soul they heard on the radio. But it was hearing the English band Fairport Convention and the way they drew on their folk heritage that inspired Los Lobos to investigate their own, and it was only after delving into the deep well of Mexican traditional music that their rock’n’roll found its own distinctive character.

Run River North have already hinted at their unique heritage in their earlier album, but it feels as though they have barely broken the surface. Who knows, perhaps if they were to return to that well and truly immerse themselves as Los Lobos did, they might emerge with a sound like no one else.

Songs featured: Ghost, 29, Can’t Come Down, Intro (Funeral) Parade, Ghost, Pretender.

Drinking From A Salt Pond is available on Nettwerk Records.