More Cowbell: Needtobreathe’s latest album, ‘Rivers in the Wasteland,’ isn’t edgy, but plenty provocative

Needtobreathe is, from left,: Seth Bolt (bass, background vocals), Bear Rinehart (vocals, guitar, piano) and Bo Rinehart (guitar, background vocals).

Needtobreathe is, from left,: Seth Bolt (bass, background vocals), Bear Rinehart (vocals, guitar, piano) and Bo Rinehart (guitar, background vocals).

Album Review by Jed Maynes of 360

3½ out of four cowbells

A common problem of many artists these days is the lyrics of a song don’t match the mood of the music. Needtobreathe is far removed from this problem on its latest album, “River in the Wasteland.”

The South Carolina trio was once a quintet. The group’s popularity rose quickly three years ago with the release of the underground hit “The Reckoning,” the band’s fourth studio album. As with many others in the same situation (see: Mumford & Sons or the Avett Brothers), the band struggled with handling its mounting fame while maintaining its spirituality. After nearly breaking up over their differences, brothers Bear and Bryant (Bo) Rinehart, with their friend Seth Bolt, weathered the storm. The result is their most heartfelt album to date.

“Rivers in the Wasteland” continues the Southern rock-blues-gospel-folk hybrid Needtobreathe is known for, opening with a soft, melancholy track called “Wasteland.” Bear Rinehart keeps up his Joe Cocker impersonation for the cut as he laments the fading days of youth. The band’s hardships seem to have helped him put things in perspective. “I’m the first one in line to die/when the cavalry comes …  I’m wasting my way through days/losing my youth along the way.”

From there, things only begin to look up — literally. The band tosses aside any notion that they’re performing for money or fame: “Long live the heart/long live the soul/that knows what it wants.”

As the album progresses, the lyrics move from the wasteland of Earth heavenward. It’s a beautiful tale of a man traveling a land of desperation and confusion before finding hope again. By the end track, “More Heart, Less Attack,” the man is headed “down the river to where I’m goin’.” It’s a journey with spiritual overtones that may be too much for some, but you can’t deny the Rineharts’ sincerity.

Complementing the album’s lyrics, the band’s music is more mature than ever. The soft opening touch of “Wasteland” quickly progresses into upbeat, foot-stomping tunes in which the beats are heavy and the guitars are fuzzy (check out “State I’m In” and “Feet, Don’t Fail Me Now”). The result is as though Mumford & Sons and the Black Keys got thrown into a blender and came out with a surprisingly tasty result.

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about this album is Needtobreathe’s pure, standard sound — natural percussion, acoustic instruments and old-school Southern rock. With so many pop-rock masters flirting with electronic beats and synthesizers — even in the country music scene — Needtobreathe has a refreshing love affair with raw sounds. The musicians let loose in a musical crescendo in almost every song. The band even manages to build to a subtle high point in softer tunes such as “Difference Maker.” One mark of great songwriting is not needing to hide behind production.

The Carolina rockers do play it safe on this album: verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, interlude, chorus. The non-risk formula does get a bit monotonous, but Needtobreathe manages to pull it off, making “Rivers in the Wasteland” a catchy, thought-provoking journey that captures the spirit of the average American worn out on the American dream.

Maynes can be contacted at or (208) 848-2232. Follow him on Twitter @JedidiahBilliam.

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