[SINGER-SONGWRITER, WITH BAND] The Red River was more legend than band when I first heard them—all hushed whispers and home-dubbed cassettes. They were from Long Beach, Calif. Dhani Rosa from Eskimo and Sons said they "taught us everything we know," and Eskimo and Sons was a band that knew a lot about sending shivers up and down my spine.

When I first saw them—in the basement of the PSU student center—they took my heart whole. French horn! Singalongs! Sincerity! The full-throated choruses and clamor of horns and clattering drums of their first album, Grassblades, has never been more than a month out of my steady rotation since. A line from that album, "You are something good, and so am I," saw me through some of my toughest times.

I saw them again in the winter, a semi-secret house party on Northeast Beech Street. I brought a bottle of wine and shared it with their lead singer, Bill Roberts. We all sang together, warming that little living room with our earnest breath.

They moved up here, I heard, but sadly I missed the one show I heard about. They were working on a record, but there was no timeline. Then I heard nothing.

If it feels like I'm talking about myself, it's only to explain my anxiousness about hearing the Red River's new album, Little Songs about the Big Picture. Can they still bring that warmth, that grace, that big-heartedness that shone through those ramshackle shows? Would they lose the innocent wonder of that earlier album?

Good news: They enter honestly. "We have nothing more than what we are born with," Roberts sings, joined by the full band in chorus. And if, by four songs into the album, any doubts remain—they are blasted to pieces by the joyous horn that opens "I Will Give Thanks."

"I threw my heart out/ like a spinning, sharp tomahawk," they sing. And maybe that's what really grabs and holds me about the Red River—their willingness to venture fearlessly out of the comfortable world of metaphor and into the uneasy and uneven terrain of autobiography.

It's embarrassing at times. Some lyrics feel forced or awkward, as on the standout "Dirty Dave": "You wrote poems about God and lighters/ and read them to me in all-night diners."

But as face-reddening as it can be, Little Songs About the Big Picture redeems itself instantly and repeatedly with its purity and honesty. The lyrics say it better than I can: "Any time something is lost, it can be rebuilt/ And any time something is rebuilt, it can be broken again/ And any time something is broken, you can learn from it/ And any time you learn from something broken, you can change for good, for good."


The Red River plays the Woods on Friday, Dec. 3, with Andy Combs and the Moth and Risa Beaumet. 9 pm. $6. 21+.