The most appealing aspect of There Is A Mountain, the exquisite debut record from Common Prayer, is the element of surprise that is layered throughout the album; where the plaintive beauty of one song hardly prepares you for the wildly inventive percussion of the next, and where decades of listening to music scarcely primes you for the fluid blend of heartfelt sincerity and offbeat experimentalism found within these numbers. Common Prayer is the brainchild of erstwhile Mercury Rev bassist (and current member of the Brooklyn band Hopewell) Jason Sebastian Russo, who impressively constructs playful, poignant arrangements around his delicately simple song structures, never adding more than the track demands, while keeping the music light and spontaneous even when the lyrics turn a bit dark. The album was recorded in a cow barn in the English village of Steventon, and the humble origins of these songs colour the entire record, giving it a genuine, unconstrained feel while also imbuing the tracks with an upstart’s fighting spirit.
The album opens with the graceful ‘commonprayer,’ which introduces the listener to the kitchen-sink nature of the band, with typewriters and other found sounds forming the percussion amidst Russo’s wispy warble and upbeat strumming. It’s a lovely opening, but is no way a precursor to the untamed stomp of ‘Hopewell,’ a lively celebration of the inexhaustible but fleeting joys of youth. The album is loosely tethered together by the riotous drums featured throughout, with seemingly whatever is laying around the barn ripe for pounding out a rhythm upon, be it a garbage can or abandoned scraps of metal. Anything and everything goes on There Is A Mountain, which injects the tracks with a unbridled exuberance that is at once infectious and engaging, with each risk taken by the band only adding to the album’s spirit and enduring charm.
‘Marriage Song’ features a lovely three-part harmony in the midst of a stark examination of both the joy and pain involved in pledging your life to someone, with Alexandra Marvar’s dulcet vocals providing the female’s perspective within the song’s theme of partnership and dissolution. It’s a gorgeous track that fully encapsulates the draw of Common Prayer, with their natural ability to craft an indelible melody amid uninhibited rhythms and heartbreaking narratives, all while sounding joyously relaxed. ‘Us Vs. Them’ is another perfect example of this, with the song coalescing mournfully around a simple piano line, a touching chorus and some wistful whistling. It’s a simple formula, but it works well here, and serves the song’s uncomplicated arrangements and honest, forthright production.
‘Of Saints’ forms the album’s stirring centerpiece, with a melancholy organ blending seamlessly with Russo’s electric guitar, building up to the rousing, elegiac chorus that forms one of the record’s many standout moments. My one complaint is that the album is incredibly front-loaded, with the second half of the record featuring mostly unadorned tracks (‘You, Aloft,’ ‘American Sex’) that come off as half-formed demos when compared to the splendor found on the first side. But the bold, anthemic ‘Everything & More’ closes out the record strongly, serving as a call-to-arms to underdogs everywhere that something beautiful can spring from wherever passion resides, be it a cow barn or some place far more grand.