On paper, it looks like a radical transition: Michael Nau and Whitney McGraw — former purveyors of bouncy, glockenspiel-dinging indie-pop with the band Page France — re-emerged in 2008 as the Southern-gothic, psychedelic-folk duo Cotton Jones. What could have been just another case of gimmicky retro mining, however, turned out to be an ideal next step for the Cumberland, Md., natives. On their latest album, Tall Hours in the Glowstream, Nau and McGraw have managed to pull off one of pop's trickiest feats — timelessness in a contemporary package.
"It's definitely not a goal of ours to make music that sounds old or out of place with what's happening now," says Nau (vocals andguitar), who quietly married McGraw (vocals and keys) and relocated to Athens, Ga., last year. "I certainly listen to a lot of music that's not from 2010, and a lot of our song structures and melodies lend themselves to some of that older music we love. But we also want to make music that lasts and can mean something to somebody for a long time, and not just fade away with changing styles of music."
Tall Hours is certainly not lacking in its historical touchstones. Album opener "Sail of the Silver Morning" sounds like an optimistic answer to Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted," while "Somehow to Keep It Going" recalls the ethereal, Big Sky vibe of Buffalo Springfield's "Expecting to Fly." It's just as easy to find dozens of other, far more recent influences, though, from the Mazzy Star dreaminess of "More Songs for Margaret" to Fleet Foxes' brand of reverb-heavy harmonies on "Soft Mountain Shake." Cotton Jones may not sound much like Page France, but thankfully Nau and McGraw didn't abandon their 21st-century hodge-podge approach to songwriting, either.
"I think a lot of it has to do with not being overly self-conscious about things," Nau says. "With the lack of recording knowledge we have and the gear we use, things tend to wind up sounding a certain way, and we've never really felt in control of that. Some of it has to do with our lack of preparation, where the writing and recording process kind of merge into one. It was like that in Page France, too. A lot of good things can happen without having to really direct it yourself."
Add in the fact that Tall Hours was recorded and self-produced in several different cities with a wide variety of guest collaborators, and the album's cohesiveness becomes all the more impressive. For Nau, the common denominator is Cumberland, even though he and McGraw had technically left the town behind.
"A lot of the people who were involved in helping us make this record are people I grew up with in Cumberland," he says, "so it came out that way quite naturally. Detaching myself physically from western Maryland for a while, I feel like I grew more nostalgic for my childhood there and the times we've all spent there."
Accordingly, even for listeners who've never been to Cumberland, Cotton Jones' music tends to elicit a sort of shared sense of summers gone by — sweet and nostalgic, but with a hint of darkness like an autumn chill rolling in.
"I think if it was all peaceful and summery, it would probably be a lie, because our lives aren't really like that," says Nau. Both he and McGraw still work day jobs in between albums to make ends meet.
"It's hard to have peace in your heart all the time. And it's a really hard thing to be patient when things aren't going right. So it's important for me that, since we're singing about our lives, those real emotions come in."
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