Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Bandcamp playlist at the bottom of the page.
The small Vermont town of Bennington sits in the shadow of the Green Mountain National Forest. Glastenbury Mountain towers over the shire to the east, and during lush summer months it can look like the Appalachian equivalent of The Wall from Game of Thrones. It was in that majestic setting in 2009 that Molly Sarlé, Amelia Meath and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig formed the vocal trio Mountain Man. The three women, all students at Bennington College at the time, performed unaccompanied harmonies, often in atypical keys, that felt like sonic extensions of the hills themselves.
Mountain Man's debut album, Made the Harbor, was roundly revered the following year, and tours with The Decemberists, Jónsi and Feist soon followed. After more than two years on the road — including a stop at the Newport Folk Festival in 2011 — Sarlé, Meath and Sauser-Monnig took a creative break, and it wasn't long before Meath was making electro-pop magic with Nick Sanborn as Sylvan Esso. (When you stumble upon a song like "Coffee," it only makes sense to see where things might lead.)
But Mountain Man never officially broke up. And after an appearance at Justin Vernon's Eaux Claires festival last year, the trio decided the time was right to record a sophomore album. The result is Magic Ship, out Sept. 21 on Nonesuch Records.
Made the Harbor's rural a cappella was described as "timeless" on a few occasions, but that wasn't entirely accurate. Part of the record's charm was just how young it sounded. Magic Ship's songs, on the other hand, feel lived in and worn at the edges. There's also a precision to these songs — both in harmony and duration — that lend them a sense of purpose. The beguiling opening track, "Window," is just 50 seconds long, and all the better for it, while the closing "Guilt" packs a weekend-long meditation into its 51 seconds.
Other highlights include "Stella," where the trio's harmonies leap out of the speakers at unexpected times, and "Slow Wake Up Sunday Morning," perhaps the most fully-formed and emotional song in Mountain Man's catalog. But to listen to individual songs sells this album short. Magic Ship is most potent when heard in full, from beginning to end, ideally on a back porch or around a smoldering campfire.