For the Record: A Wolf in The Doorway

By Devin McGrath-Conwell

A debut album is an unpredictable beast. With a multitude of talented musical acts vying for the limited attention span of the public audience, it becomes an undertaking to make an original musical statement that can project itself above the cacophony of the airwaves. A Wolf in the Doorway marks a standout debut that does just this. The Ballroom Thieves are a three-piece band out of Boston, made up of Martin Earley (acoustic guitar and vocals), Devin Mauch (percussion and vocals) and Calin Peters (cello and vocals). The three have been making music together for the past few years. I have had the pleasure of seeing them live twice and was excited to see if their remarkable energy and distinct blend of instrumentation translated fully onto their first full length album. Spoiler – it does.

The album begins with one of the stand out tracks on the album, and one of my personal favorites of theirs, titled “Archers.” Starting off with a sparse heartbeat of a drum line and Earley’s vocals over top, he is joined by his bandmates in a striking harmony, and they join together in a crescendo that reaches its first climax on a chorus of “Well, you can let your arrows sing! / I’ve never met a man of iron skin, / but you know, archers never made good kings, / fly headfirst into everything.”

The song is an exceptional example of the groups musical synergy, and an introduction to the abundance of inventive and insightful lyrics in their repertoire. It is refreshing to hear a group that blends strong writing in both facets of song craftsmanship so effortlessly.

The next track, “Lantern”, leaves no doubt that replacing a bassist with a cellist was a stroke of genius. For the first few bars, there is nothing but the repeated notes of Peter’s cello that creates a driving character that can be lacking in your average bass line. The lyric features a lovely extended metaphor in which a lantern represents an object of desire, stating “You’re shining still / You’re a lantern on a hill /And I would burn into the ground / To take you home.” The group shows many of the musical tendencies that made so many fall in love with Mumford & Sons, possessing arguably stronger lyrics than the popular band.

From there we are treated to a trio of tunes that showcase the tonal diversity of the album: “Bullet” features two minutes of hauntingly rich music that takes us through the trials of a failed relationship before breaking into a foot-tapping jam of a final minute, “Saint Monica” floats along with the sparsest backing on the album so far and gives one of my favorite lines on the album, “Maybe if I begged some old saint for her patience / And then sold it to pay for her time” and “Wild Woman” returns to the groove of the first track and turns in a beautifully poetic take on a woman that will not be tamed by love.

In another stark change of pace, “Oars to the Sea” stands as a raging piece of blues work, introducing the first electric orchestration on the album. The group tears joyfully into it with a chest-thumping underline provided by Mauch and Peters while Earley rips into his electric guitar. The breadth of the group’s musical sensibilities is stunning, and putting a surprise like this halfway through the album was a stroke of genius. It also makes the next track, “Bury Me Smiling,” even more captivating in its tenderness. Peters lends her voice to lead vocals for the first time on the album, and the results are wondrous. The song’s lyrics talk of death, but in no way as a sad or morbid subject. She sings “A heart like a wild sea / No man could own me / Won’t be the words, upon my stone.” I challenge you not to fall in love with this woman’s voice and hope there are more features of it in the future.

The contemplative mood is expanded with the succeeding track, “The Loneliness Waltz.” It approaches loss as its preceding track does, but with less smiling. Here the three instruments and voices intertwine in a song that plays with the tone of an aged soul reflecting on all that they have seen dance away from them. The ache is reflected in the strikingly poignant line “All the parents and the poets can cry in their graves / From the lack of the love you gave.” It is a gorgeous meditation on the power of loneliness.

After the first half of the album that generally sides with upbeat and energetic songs, the second half of the album settles into a much more mood oriented and slower mode. The wonderful fact, however, is that this change of pace loses none of the inventiveness. The vocal harmonies of “Here I Stand” are some of the most beautiful on the album, while “Anchors” has an almost cinematic quality of orchestration, and the last two minutes of “Oak” feature an instrumental string section that ties in “Bury Me Smiling” for a stunning piece of music.

The album finishes with “Wolf,” which switches back into a rock mood, and brings back the electric guitar with the addition of a trumpet, a piano and a banjo. Earley sings “You are a queen honey / I am a wolf” and the band delivers a memorable end to an immensely memorable album. Their work embodies such a breadth of musicality and talent that I eagerly wait for their next offering quite impatiently. I hope their debut continues to reach prospective fans because they are more than worth paying attention to.