Daniel Levi Goans and Lauren Plank Goans are used to fielding questions about the overlap between their musical and marital partnerships. If anything, they’ve invited this sort of curiosity by telling their backstory the way they have: him striking up a conversation after overhearing her singing to herself at a party; their courtship flowering from her harmonizing on his solo record; the simultaneous joining of their domestic lives and creative output with the formation of the duo Lowland Hum.
On their debut album, Native Air, and in front of audiences, the Greensboro, N.C., couple set out to perform their intimacy and invite listeners into the cocooned imaginative space they’ve chosen to share with each other. More interested in the sensuous potential of performance than one might expect a folk act to be, they’d erect a shredded fabric backdrop behind them, burn essential oils (where venues would allow it), hand out homemade hymnals of their lyrics and press their reedy voices together. Sonically, though, their impressionistic, narrative folk was deliberately sparse; that way, they reasoned, harried listeners would find room to breathe. But even such an artful quiet can come to feel suffocating.
During the wordless opening track of Lowland Hum’s self-titled second album, Lauren Plank Goans offers a delicate, ruminative melodic idea that’s soon crowded by a lumbering loop and the tangled echoes of other, contrasting vocal parts. It’s the sound of a voice being squeezed out of an interior space.
Benefiting from a freewheeling, beefed-up studio band, the dynamic range of this 13-song set runs from hushed insularity to ardent expansiveness, alighting on dozens of gradations between. The sunshine-infused pop number “Olivia” depicts lovers trying to steal time together. The pensive, fingerpicked “Rolling And Rolling” ponders the ways that growing up erodes a person’s sense of self. The somber hymn “Lautrec” is a meditation on the pain that French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec might have been purging in his work, while the bittersweet folk-rocker “Odell” conjures the flattening emotional burdens his mother bore.
The Goans spend the final minute and a half of Lowland Hum repeating, “I keep looking at my cell phone / Can’t stop looking at my cell phone,” as they bend and twist their voices into different harmonic intervals, tones and inflections. As they cycle through disappointment, alarm and resignation, they sound altogether animated by the disquiet.