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The Forest Dwellers’ debut album 'Open Road' fuses reggae-rock with '90s grit

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It’s hard to imagine a name more fitting for a stripped-down, acoustic band than The Forest Dwellers — a Rochester-based folk-reggae quintet whose tracks sound like they were plucked from the earth itself. The group’s first full-length album, “Open Road,” takes listeners on a journey of romance and heartbreak accompanied by skillful guitar solos and impressive lead vocals from singer Joe Kaplan.

On the first track, “For You,” listeners are greeted with a solitary muffled bass line, thumping in and out like a heartbeat. An acoustic guitar chimes in and quickly shifts into a shoulder-swaying, reggae-style beat. As captivating harmonies spin into the mix, Kaplan sings, “I hope you know / That all I do is for you / Your beauty is unnatural / You’re generous, too.” The song is topped-off by an awe-inspiring acoustic guitar solo that seems almost classical in nature, evoking the image of someone sitting alongside the shoreline of the Mediterranean coast.


The album’s self-titled track comes next with a raw, folk-inspired guitar part reminiscent of singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov’s music. As the song starts to build, varying acoustic guitar lines start to intertwine with one another, creating welcome musical conversations.

On “Driftwood,” Kaplan articulates an existential crisis: “Should I run away to a desolate place? Or should I get over imperfection? Should I quit today or change my pace? Just dying to know my direction.” Doo-wop-style background vocals unexpectedly enter the mix, recalling the sound of 1960s folk-rock band The Byrds.

While The Forest Dwellers market themselves as a reggae band, Kaplan’s voice often conveys a harder edge than you’d expect from the genre. On songs such as “Just One Thing,” his voice adopts the groove of ’90s indie rock bands such as The Kooks.


But it’s songs like “Love and Loyalty” that remind listeners of The Forest Dwellers’ dedication to the reggae-rock sound. As a subdued keyboard plays airy tones in the background, Kaplan sings, “Woah, stormy clouds, they come on some days / Woah, you brighten my world, when I see your face / And I know, yes, I know it’s this gift you bring.” The song exudes the kind of serenity you might feel as you row your boat down a slow, clear river with no obstructions in sight.



After settling into the reggae-rock groove, The Forest Dwellers quickly jump back outside the genre with their next track, “Not That Kind of Guy.” Kaplan melts into an unequivocally ’90s rap-rock rhythm, taking on a vocal quality similar to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis, in that band’s heyday.

While the lyrics throughout “Open Road” pay homage to romantic relationships, there are also several nods to the importance of platonic friendship. On “Those Loyal Few,” Kaplan drops down to a lower register. “Where will you go when the lights go out, when your heart is in your hand?” he sings.


The technical abilities of the group shine brightest on “Forgotten.” The song begins with a classical guitar solo that sounds almost medieval. Strangely, the band finds a way to meld this obscure melody seamlessly into a reggae beat. The song appears to comment on the transformational experience of exiting a failing relationship, as Kaplan sings, “I took my heart away from the undeserving / That’s when I found the reason that I was hurting / But it’s over now, new situation.”

The album comes to a close with “I Want More,” undoubtedly a song of reconciliation and renewal. After several contemplative songs that give space for wistful daydreaming and quiet meditation, the final track jolts the listener’s senses with a sparse but bright piano part that accompanies a dance-worthy acoustic guitar riff.

The Forest Dwellers' "Open Road"  is filled with danceable, technically mature tunes that are certain to keep listeners on their toes.

The Forest Dwellers play their album release show with Elephino and Archimedes on Saturday, Aug. 28, at 7 p.m., at Water Street Music Hall, 204 N. Water St. 18 and over. $10 in advance, $12 day of show. For tickets, go to eventbrite.com.

Emmarae Stein is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.