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River Whyless' 'Kindness, A Rebel' Examines The American Experiment

River Whyless' <em>Kindness, A Rebel </em>comes out June 8.
Shervin Lainez
Courtesy of the artist
River Whyless' Kindness, A Rebel comes out June 8.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

When I heard the burbling synth at the top of River Whyless' new album, Kindness, A Rebel, I knew I was in for something different from this Asheville-birthed quartet. Their 2016 folky world-beat album We All The Light was a favorite of mine, but this album has more drive, it's more cohesive and lyrically more thematic; the album's title is a hint. Drummer Alex McWalters, one of four songwriters in the band, says, "We've reached a point where we just understand that the songs are more important than the egos."

That opening song is called "All of My Friends," and it's a good example of how River Whyless is changing. Singer and violinist Halli Anderson wrote the song and quite liked it, but the album's producer Paul Butler didn't. And since this album was to be a group effort instead of relying on the individual strengths of these four songwriters, she initially let the song go. But a few days later, that burbling sound resonated from the synthesizer and the song was reborn. Singer and guitarist Ryan O'Keeffe said, "It was the first time I felt like we captured a song in the moment of creation. Lyrics were changing in the moment. Melodies were changing in the moment. Singers were changing. It was really difficult and emotionally intense but so gratifying when we were done."

When I asked River Whyless to describe the core of Kindness, A Rebel (out June 8 on Roll Call Records), they chose to not write about the sounds that make up their third album — and for an album filled with strong melodies and first-rate playing, that seemed odd. Instead, River Whyless wanted to tell me about the album's theme and what brought them together at a time when their individual lives were pulling them in different directions, including grad school, marriage, moving and building a home. Their message regarding how the record came to be is more spiritual than what I usually hear from bands. They wrote the following in an email:

"Tribalism, fear, anger, violence. These are natural, automatic responses to challenging times. And history has proven how often civilizations devolve into these more primitive forms of existence. But is that really the best way to live? The American experiment, in other words, was never supposed to be simple. It requires that we all make a constant and persistent effort to reject some of our primitive instincts, to rebel against our lesser selves. Cheesy as it might sound on the surface, true kindness is actually quite difficult. It requires true compassion, generosity and humility. Like America itself, kindness is an ideal, a thing we must strive to attain even as we know we'll always fall a little short. But kindness is not synonymous with passivity, with apathy or complacency. Kindness is active, deliberate and self-assured. It seems almost like a contradiction: Kindness and conviction? Humility and self-assurance? But it's not. It's possible to listen and to speak.

"Kindness, A Rebel is not an attempt to offer social or political solutions. It aims instead to express what we feel is a first step toward a constructive conversation. It's both a celebration and perpetuation of the freedom we all have to speak, to disagree, to be both challenged and enriched by our collective differences."

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