Honeysuckle hones their sound on their beautiful sophomore album Catacombs.

In performances, Holly McGarry characterizes Honeysuckle’s music as “songs about birds and death.” This is as light-hearted as it is certain, and it points to a central theme in their work: a strong sense of identity and comfort in that identity as a band. In that identity, there is a strong sense of folk tradition and a grounding in place (Boston), but also in the the ways they arrange their voices and instruments together.

Honeysuckle undeniably belongs to a moment in contemporary folk music, but they sound like no one else. Perhaps it’s McGarry’s honey mellow voice, or Chris “Gooch” Bloniarz’s masterful mandolin playing. Or perhaps it’s Ben Burns’ particular brand of wistful, lyrical introspection. Whatever it is, it works. And on Catacombs, the band’s second full-length release, it continues to work.

This band emerged from the bones of previous bands several years ago with a fully developed sound, confident and comfortable in itself like a worn pair of jeans. On Catacombs, they really dig into their signature sound, autumnal in its melancholy, three-part harmonies and rich in layers of strings. But they embellish too, adding a patch or two, embroidering that well-loved denim. Or, to mix metaphors, they ornament the light-up quilt that is the backdrop to most of their gigs; it’s as much a part of the band as the members themselves. 

It’s hard to say that Catacombs is more of the same and not sound negative, but this album is exactly what what you would want from a Honeysuckle album. There are anthemic strummers, like the opening track, “Pigeons.” There are tunes that travel through multiple movements, like the album’s title track, “Catacombs.” There are contemplative, finger-picked songs, like “Greenline” and “Speculations (On Passersby).”

But, as noted, they dug in and experimented and refined. Ben Burns, alternately drummer, guitarist, and banjo player, takes lead vocals on enough songs that it seems inaccurate to consider Holly McGarry the lead vocalist. This shift gives the band a stronger voice as whole. The narrator of “Beautiful Pain,” through Ben Burns’s performance as well as his lyrics is painted with particular clarity and weariness in a story of difficulty and escape. In the plodding ballad, “Thick as Blood,” McGarry’s voice finds a new edge as she sings “our ties as thick as blood / thick as nails / all the tails we told turned out wrong.” For those who have attended live shows, “Catacombs” and “Constellations” are old familiars, but the multi-layered precision that they crafted the recording with created fresh and inventive versions of well-loved songs.

The last song on the album, “Chipping Away the Paint (Reprise)” revisits “Catacombs” and plays with mandolin effects and drum beats that dance the line of rock music. Perhaps it’s a segue to new avenues for Honeysuckle, or a flex of muscle to show their range. A bit of bedazzling, or the start of breaking in a whole new pair of jeans. But before worrying about future Honeysuckle albums, give this one a listen. It’s a fine album.

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