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No River City: Running wild 

Atlanta alt-country band travels the lost highway

The rural American landscape has long stood as a backdrop for existential searching and discovery. For No River City singer/guitarist Drew de Man, untamed America still holds the allure it did when Lewis and Clark first carved a path to the Pacific Ocean 200 years ago. If Lewis and Clark are remembered for anything, it is for discovering the way, not the destination. As No River City traverses the same terrain on tour, bridging the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, the long-standing Atlanta alt-country ensemble has discovered its own means to an end where self-discovery arises from long hours on the road to nowhere.

In April, NRC released Wolves and Fishes, a second full-length that embraces a more experimental palette than traditional country music and Americana songwriting. De Man, alongside Chris Poma (bass), Eric Amata (guitar), Nathan Green (keyboard) and Mark Carbone (drums), crafted the songs by fusing elements of improvisation with ornate and bittersweet country rock. De Man's tales of woe and hardship interspersed with imagery of animals that are symbolic of a spectrum of ideas and emotions add a playful but profound element to the music.

The songs are grand, swaying numbers that pull from the same bucolic countryside as artists such as Will Oldham, Wilco and Band of Horses. But live, the barreling "Jacy Farrow" rises and falls with noisy crescendos while "Forty Foot Woman" and "Leftover Men & Machines" spread out as spacious ballads. In-the-moment improvisation creates a slightly different energy during each performance.

This lean toward improv is an essential part of the group's ability to wander into new and creative realms by expanding upon songs that already exist. The album's title, Wolves and Fishes, acknowledges this by playing off the biblical references to loaves and fishes. "When you're making music or playing music with an ensemble like this, you're making something out of nothing," de Man says.

Why wolves? "It's something wild," he adds. "As we arrange our songs, we see them in terms of landscapes, like a big expanse of space and objects, and we're looking at verses, choruses and standard melodic parts of the songs as big chunks of the landscape – hills, mountains and other features. But you leave space for air and room for animals to run around, and you let a river run through it."

Bassist Chris Poma couldn't commit to the current tour. In his absence the group's experimental tendencies kicked in to unveil an entirely new way of playing the songs sans bass.

Each member adapted to cover the sonic territory of the bass on his own instrument, which de Man calls a liberating experience. "It frees us up to take some rhythmic turns that we would be more locked into if we had a bass player," he adds. Amid the bottom end of a kick drum and larger amps for the guitars and keyboard, the lack of an actual bass is easily camouflaged.

These experiences on the road will no doubt influence the shape of songs to come. But when pondering what's next, de Man's thoughts are diverted back to the road, and he evokes the names of the famous explorers who laid the path across the country in the first place. "They had to choose rivers to go up, a path to cross mountains and make alliances with the natives. We do all of this as well," he adds. "In a way it's really just about walking a path and tracing a path across this country and knowing that you did it. Our discovery has been seeing the American landscape and relying on each other. Learning how to play as a four-piece; how to play the parts better and in a different way ... It is the most existential experience I can imagine."

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