Great opportunities often surface in the ebb of prior endeavors. So it began for Feral Conservatives, a Virginia Beach indie pop outfit spun off from an earlier unsung garage band half a decade ago. Mandolinist Rashie Rosenfarb and drummer Matt Francis knew better than to ignore their obvious chemistry, so together they hit the ground running in a new direction. Their early collaborations, led in major part by Rosenfarb’s songwriting, fostered a formative period of experimentation.
The result? A finely honed, distinctly personal sound. Any mandolin-based pop band is going to be held up to R.E.M., but in this case, the comparison is an apt one—specifically their classic Green album, but with a dash of Lisa Loeb thanks to the female lead vocals. Even on their early EPs, Feral Conservatives consistently nails that happy-yet-melancholy vibe so evocative of the early 90s without feeling like a nostalgia act. Gigs at Norfolk scene favorites including the DIY landmark Charlie’s American Café and Toast helped establish the band’s presence. When asked about that first year of sound-searching and water-testing, Rosenfarb said they were “just goin’ for it full-on.”
Now, fresh on the heels of the 2016 award-winning Here’s to Almost, Feral Conservatives is releasing their second full-length album, Better Lives. With bassist Dan Avant and guitarist Zach Jones, their sound has been upgraded with added rock, roll, and depth. According to Rosenfarb, “It just sounds like it has more life, more freeness to it.” Francis drilled deeper, saying, “I think the band's progression is really interesting, how we started as a mandolin-drum duo and expanded to the sound showcased on Better Lives, but still keeping the spirit of the initial spark that brought Rashie and I together as songwriters.” The new band members are also breathing new life into the group, Francis said. “We've always brought different genres together, from the buttery-smooth to the raw and rough-hewn. This album is no different, but it also sees for the first time song credit contributions from each individual member.”
While some of the earlier EP recordings hit the mark with the help of session players to fill out the sound, the recent releases deliver a more complex and carefully textured intention, especially after Avant and Jones had been fully incorporated into the musical creation process. Even before they joined, Rosenfarb and Francis were receiving critical acclaim for their efforts, as Here’s to Almost won "Album of the Year" at the 2017 Veer Music Awards of Hampton Roads. Asked about the development between Here’s to Almost and Better Lives, Francis added, “I guess I'm most proud of it as a band record in that regard.”
They’re not the only ones who think that way. These last two albums have been released by Richmond’s Egghunt Records. They also caught the ear of veteran musician and producer Jon Auer, who lent his production skills to Better Lives. “I think the mixing work and overall direction brought by Jon Auer really made all the pieces fit and flow,” said Francis. “He's been in some bands we really admire from The Posies to Big Star, and worked with You Am I behind the board, so that was a big milestone for us.”
This past summer, just a week before a series of intense hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast, Feral Conservatives embarked on a two-week tour including stops in American music hot spots like Nashville, Austin, and New Orleans. Francis recounted the experience: “I'd say the definitive highlights for me were playing The End in Nashville to an uncharacteristically decent crowd. Bands like The Weakerthans, Against Me!, and Superchunk all played there, although it's hard to imagine those bands ever being our size! Also eating at Whataburger in Texas, and catching a late-night jazz show on Bourbon Street in New Orleans that both moved me close to happy tears and made me feel completely inadequate as a musician.” Rosenfarb laughed about some of the crazier parts of the tour, like playing adjacent to a giant image of copulating goats at the appropriately named Love Goat in central Austin, and becoming briefly entrenched in the alcohol-soaked wildness of New Orleans for their gig at DMac’s.
Listening to Better Lives, it’s clear that Feral Conservatives haven’t lost the initial spark they hoped to preserve. Straight-ahead numbers like “Angel,” while stylistically reminiscent of alt-rock radio hits of the 90s and 2000s, manage to bridge folk and contemporary indie pop in a recipe that would be equally welcome in small town Americana venues as on festival stages. Rosenfarb’s vocals have roots in traditional folk and bluegrass, but she quickly reveals a more commanding dynamic during energetic choruses, reminding this listener more than once of early KT Tunstall hits. “Let It Be,” the last track on Better Lives, is more restrained—at least at first. The tune starts as a slower shoegazey piece, all simple progressions at a welcome pace and plenty of space, layered with shimmery atmosphere. Rosenfarb’s voice compels the listener onward, eventually joined by towering Mogwai-esque crescendos—overdriven, sustained peaks and slushy, reverberating valleys. Jones’s restrained lead guitar work throughout is tasteful and emotive, selflessly adding just enough to get the job done. If “Let It Be” is indicative of things to come, bring it on.
Feral Conservatives will be playing two Better Lives release shows: one on November 3 at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond, the other on November 4 at Toast in Norfolk. Available on CD and colored vinyl from Egghunt Records.
Photography by Beth Austin