The band's moniker comes from the likely source of the Des Moines River's name (the French Rivière des Moines - "river of the monks"), and TinyMixTapes.com declared that "the River Monks might just be Iowa. The five-part vocal harmonies swirl outward like wind across the fields, while the band's traditional folk instrumentation is given Iowa's unexpectedly progressive touch, leaving you with something entirely recognizable, yet completely new."
Its new album is titled Home Is the House, invoking a sense of physical place.
And many thousands of people in Iowa know the band - even if they don't realize it. The River Monks composed the theme music for Iowa Public Radio's two talk shows.
The irony is that the band - playing Rozz-Tox on July 2 - no longer has a home. While the group originated in Des Moines, some of the sextet's members have been scattered about - to Nashville, to Omaha, Nebraska, and soon to California.
So the River Monks' seven-week summer tour, singer/songwriter Ryan Stier said in a phone interview last week, is a bid for longevity. "We've been really forced to figure out: If the band's going to continue, then we need to set some groundwork."
Stier was talking about the band's touring base, but Home Is the House serves as a stunningly strong musical foundation, a record with a comfortably alluring surface that serves as an entry point into complications that reward close listening.
While "home" is the overriding theme of the album, it's engagingly structured more like a developing consciousness. Stier said the opening two tracks - "Overture" and the long-form "Skin" - can be seen as an emergence from sleep.
"If you want to look at it like a metaphor, the album's kind of waking up right there [in "Overture"], yawning and stretching and getting you ready for what's to come," he said. And "Skin" is "not necessarily a dream, but it's based on an idea of 'Was that a dream?' - where you're wondering if you're awake yet."
From those ephemeral beginnings, Home Is the House clarifies into more-conventional songs - although, like Andrew Bird, the force of idiosyncratic personality transforms the building blocks of Americana into something that defies pigeonholing. The band's precise folk-rock arrangements, broad palette, and vocals that melt the emotional edges off wistfulness blend into a relaxed, patient meal in which the individual flavors of each course are given the room to breathe and expand.
On "Mouth," the vocals, banjo, and acoustic guitar provide the backbone, but horns entering in the middle add a gentle melody, the kick drum provides a soft heartbeat in an interlude, and there are even a few electronic ambient flourishes. Harmonizing voices paired with acoustic guitar imitate ringing bells.
Throughout the record, there's a deft balance of simplicity and density - of straightforward musical and thematic ideas explored fully and cleverly, which lends lean mass to even the gentleness. From moments of ethereal harmonies to infrequent blasts of discord, there's confidence and certainty in fulfilling each track's considerable ambitions.
The band uses electric guitar infrequently, for example, but it's carefully employed to serve the song. "Loam & Rye" is nearly a rock song, but the instrument brings more than distortion. There are, in fact, at least four distinct guitar parts, each serving a different function - a slow, flat, reverb-heavy hook; a bright complement to the vocals; scratchy, nearly ominous rhythmic noise; and, near the end, a backward squall. That sounds like overkill - particularly on a record largely made from fluffy clouds - but it reflects a clarity of vision and execution.
The River Monks started in 2010 as a trio, and although the group has doubled in size since its debut album Jovials, there's a smart restraint in the songwriting and arrangements on the new record; there might be more people, but the songs aren't burdened by superfluous parts or playing.
Stier said Jovials was largely written in the studio: "We were kind of just learning what we wanted to do as a band, what we wanted to sound like, experimenting with what kinds of sounds we could make together."
Home Is the House, by contrast, was thoroughly thought-out because of the band's new geography, and recording sessions in three states. "The second time around, we really had to be a little more mature about our arrangements, how we were going to plan it out because we had to record it in ... these specified chunks of time."
"Mature" is a good word, as the album skates up to the line between gorgeous articulation and overly precious perfection - ending up an accessible and rich document of a band's grasp matching its reach.
The River Monks will perform on Wednesday, July 2, at Rozz-Tox (2108 Third Avenue, Rock Island; RozzTox.com). The 8 p.m. all-ages show also includes Brooks Strause and The Multiple Cat, and admission is $5.
For more information on the River Monks, visit TheRiverMonks.com.