Given Jason Sebastian Russo's past as a member of both NYC psychedelic rockers Hopewell and (albeit briefly) renowned wayward frontier freak-poppers Mercury Rev, it was always likely that this on-paper folk proposition was actually far from a standard-issue acoustic-strums album. And so it proves to be: Common Prayer's debut is a set that stretches itself across a multi-coloured patchwork of sonic touchstones, exploring uncommon tangents but never losing sight of the thread that so delicately binds the whole into a surprisingly cohesive experience.
Russo recorded these 11 tracks in Oxfordshire, the players drawn from the local area's indie-cum-folk pool of talent. One, Robin Bennett, organises the annual Truck Festival, at which Common Prayer performed this summer; he was (is? Answers on a postcard...) also in the Virgin-signed band Goldrush. Another Russo, Jason's brother Justin, features too - he played a part in Mercury Rev and is currently the core creative force in Brooklyn chamber-pop outfit The Silent League. Given the disparate roots of its musicians, it's a real treat that There Is a Mountain sounds the way it does - it beguiles gently, its clattering percussion and deft injections of violin and accordion dancing merrily around spoken-word samples and heavy-of-soul organ groan.
Ultimately, what should not sound like a band proper (inverted commas, there) absolutely does. Whether the transatlantic group presses on remains to be seen, but in these songs there is promise enough to suggest Common Prayer could rise through the alternative-indie ranks in a manner akin to Broken Social Scene. As the feted Canadians continued with their collaborative project, so their sound swelled and morphed; here, this Anglo-American ensemble performs with a freeness that implies nothing is beyond consideration. It doesn't always work, but the group's playfulness typically pays dividends.
Among these highs: the Arcade Fire-on-a-budget dusty-booted stomp-along of Sara G, the piano-accompanied tenderness of penultimate number Moneyspider, Hopewell's spirited shout-along to memories of more innocent days. Throughout, Russo (JS) reveals himself to be an inspired lyricist - his reference to a couple's "shapeless geometry" on American Sex shouldn't sound romantic, but somehow it's the loveliest sentiment heard on a record in several weeks. His voice isn't the strongest, but it's warm and affecting of lilt - a comparison to Mark Linkous certainly isn't too wide of the mark.
It's not big, but it is clever and impressively orchestrated. As such, There Is a Mountain ranks as one of the year-so-far's most recommended under-the-radar releases.