September 11, 2012
A band that has hit creative stagnancy is often times a band that has reached its peak, and in some cases, its death. They may remain popular amongst cult listeners, but if artists are not pushing their own musical boundaries, they are no longer relevant—lost in the wake of their own design. On the other end, not all changes are positive; some artists move in a direction that old fans are no longer interested in following. However, Grand Rapids based Potato Moon does not fall in either category.
The band currently consists of six members: Ben Stancil, Jane (Stancil) Steele, Laura Stancil, Phil Stancil Sr., Phil Stancil Jr., Michael Sullivan, and Jimmy Schultz (the last two being relatively new additions to the formerly all-family band). Originally starting as an acoustic folk and bluegrass family band, Potato Moon slowly evolved throughout the years, eventually drawing new inspiration from genres such as blues and rock. However, the original elements of bluegrass and folk have managed to remain present in their current sound as the musicians have skillfully mastered the constant concurrence of diverse styles and elements.
Each album marks a significant growth in the conceptual and technical aspects of Potato Moon. The band’s first album, self-titled Potato Moon (2001), is a compilation of raw country ballads. Potato Moon led to the utilization of vocal harmonies and bluegrass instrumentation—a more mature sound marked by Midnight Water (2002). Their sophomore album eventually led to the concept album, Carnival, two years later about a carnival band from the ‘30s.
After Carnival, Potato Moon moved away from its “family band” novelty by adding two new members, Michael Sullivan and Jimmy Schultz, and released The Life of the Lonely Jones (2006). Their fourth album thrust the band into completely new places containing sounds thick with electric blues guitar riffs, the playful appropriation of studio sounds, and the development of the Jones family—the band’s new alias for live performances. While older albums maintained their acoustic, intimate aura, The Life of the Lonely Jones expanded the band’s musical palate by replacing raw bluegrass instrumentals with soulful blues riffs weaving in and out of the contrasting vocal melodies. The sound got bigger, fuller, and rockier with distorted guitars and atmospheric sounds.
Although their fourth album displayed the distances the band had gone—with two Album of the Year honors at the West Michigan WYCE Jammie Awards—the succeeding album, After the Harvest (2008), was evidence that Potato Moon was pushing their own boundaries, genre notwithstanding. With 31 tracks, most of them lasting between 46 seconds to 5 minutes, the album was a conceptual shift from their previous eight to ten track albums. It was darker, grittier, and more saturated with intense emotions. Sixteenth notes were shaken out of acoustic guitar strings stacked with heavy reverb, following no time signature. Vocal harmonies were darker and earthier, juxtaposing old-timey country and blues with contemporary sound effects. The album never gets boring—new sounds and new textures are discovered with every listen.
While they are no longer as “raw” as their original acoustic tracks, Potato Moon has progressed subtly, but surely enough that older fans remain while garnering attention from new ones. Their fascination with Americana and complimentary storytelling remained in their lyrics and style, yet they still preserve the ability to evolve and broaden musical horizons. It took four years before finally releasing their most current album, The Ghost Sessions (2012), and it is no surprise to hear the diverse changes in the style of lyrics and instrumentation. Twelve years after their birth, Potato Moon have proven once again that they have the energy to grow and escape the clutches of creative stagnancy or irrelevance, and with every album they confidently declare: we are far from death.
Check out their music at http://www.potatomoonband.com.