By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Langen Neubacher's musical evolution has been played out across south-city stages over the past few years, first as an open-mic performer, then as an open-mic host and solo performer, and now as the leader of the Defeated County. The album art to this five-song EP makes her importance plain: "Performs Songs by Langen Neubacher" is furled across the top. The self-titled set is a band effort, though — Glenn Burleigh's pedal steel is a spectral presence in most tracks, and Bryan Ranney uses his mandolin to add some necessary high-end jangling. Even Kevin Koehler (guitar) and Simon Chervitz (bass), both of whom are used to playing a much more energetic style of music in the live hip-hop band Illphonics, show up on the album. Her open-mic roots help this all-inclusive gathering, though the bare-bones acoustic folk of Neubacher's songs leave a lot more white space.
There's a rusty, haunted tone to these songs, from the minor-key fingerpicking of opening track "Darkest Eyes" to the ringing, claustrophobic reverb that coats Neubacher's vocals. She sings in a breathy, halting fashion that, at times, matches the uneasiness of the lyrics. Other times, she sounds unsure of the phrasing or how to make each word land. She's a cunning enough lyricist, but there's a gap between the lyrics and how they're delivered, though some harmonic help from Irene Allen and Jenn Malzone gives a sweetly spooky lift throughout the disc.
With no drums and minimal percussion, these songs have no rhythmic center and tend to drift, unmoored: "Parking Lot" has a catchy, jaunty chord progression — at the midpoint of the EP, it's a necessary move toward something poppier — but shifting tempos keep it from sticking. (The uncredited, hidden sixth track, presumably called "I'm a Mammal," gives a tossed-off glimpse of kid-friendly, body-positive folk-rock that is a pendulum-swing away from the heaviness of the first half of the disc.) It's not until the fifth song, "The Arms of Men," that the band locks into its swishy, swaying performance. Neubacher controls the mood, with Ranney's mandolin serving as a dulcet-toned anchor. The song is a model of what the band can be at its best — wizened, coy with the easy drift of a front-porch strummer, singing songs to a row of burned-out streetlights.