After the release of five consecutive folk records, the Australian indie band the Paper Kites started to search for a different sound. What could be found in the whimsical, woodland environments of their last albums cannot be found here — there are no more charmed violins, hushed vocals or visions of love. Rather, the outfit reached for a sound reminiscent of old Americana, in an effort to emulate live concerts for their latest album, At the Roadhouse.
Back in the summer of 2022, lead vocalist Sam Bentley embarked on a hunt for a venue in Melbourne, Victoria that could be renovated into a record studio. Enchanted with the aesthetics of American folk icons, he settled on a space in Campbells Creek, a former gold-mining equipment store now converted into a hotel. This place, imbued with historical nuances and the sound of ’70s rock, is the heart of their newest record.
With each song recorded live, listeners feel immersed in an old town, bluegrass atmosphere — reminiscent perhaps of Faye Webster or other indie artists trying their hand at country organics. But what the Paper Kites seem to be missing is a sense of authenticity. So long the innocence of their previous folk hits, the band now occupies itself with trying on ill-fitting ’70s rock costumes. Instead of recalling the likes of Willie Nelson or Don Gibson, At the Roadhouse fumbles at imparting any kind of emotion — a core element that made their previous records so impressive.
“Black and Thunder,” for instance, tries to invoke hazy Americana country with trite thrushes of pedal-steel guitar and verses filled with forced vocal fry. The lyrics might paint an empathic narrative of innocent love descending into darkness, but the production wholeheartedly squanders any poignancy. John Mayer — in his Sob Rock era, not at his prime post-Continuum — comes to mind with this song, an influence the Paper Kites likely didn’t shoot for.
Things pick up but quickly crash again with the slight improvement “Till the Flame Turns Blue.” Another tune in the contrived folk rock vein, Sam Bentley croons over the most bland guitar and performs emotionally unconvincing verses. While it feels more honest in production than the prior, the track still volunteers a banal chorus, with vocal runs occupying significant lyrical space — a thinly-veiled cover-up at writer’s block.
Despite the overwhelming influence of cliché country, the Paper Kites manage to pick a few lush, organic folk ballads out of this mess. Sensitive and delicate, the album opener “Midnight Moon” sets hopes high with picturesque romanticism, a couple’s dance cloaked in the last glimpse of nightfall. Unlike “Till the Flame Turns Blue,” the instrumentation feels less like a gimmick and more like a faithful depiction of romance.
Even from the other perspective of a relationship, the band can succeed. “Burn the Night Away” reminisces on a waning young couple’s love, describing the last moments of communication between them as the wavering “light at the door.”
Still, nothing beats the Paper Kites at their most genuine. On “Pockets Full of Rain,” gets back to their roots, with a slow-strung acoustic ballad. Dressed in quaint production, the hushed vocals are more affecting — an element seldom seen on the record. Bentley hums verses about needing to accept the rain in order to appreciate the sunshine, a message that could be digested as syrupy if not delivered with earnest vocals and emotion.
This kind of magical ability to connect with their listeners is what makes the Paper Kites an enjoyable folk listen and separates the band from their contemporaries. Failed attempts at trying on unflattering styles only conflates the group with indie amateurs and sacrifices the real integrity of their art.