Five years on from its eponymous debut and two years since its last full-length Constellations, no group invites the label “chamber instrumental rock” more than Balmorhea. The chamber side comes through in the grace and finesse with which the group performs its music, and the rock side comes out in the outfit's at-times aggressive and always impassioned renderings of its compositions. But the group's music also resists such straightforward pigeonholing. The fifty-four-minute collection captures the band in particularly fine form as a seamless whole capable of confidently venturing down virtually any stylistic pathway. In addition to the group's customary chamber-rock style, Stranger includes passages that nod in the direction of everything from African Highlife (“Masollan”) to classical minimalism (“Fake Fealty”), even if such influences are integrated so fully into the Balmorhea sound they're easy to miss.
The ruminative travelogue “Days” is typically kaleidoscopic in its rich blend of electric guitars, strings, percussion, and piano, yet also expands on the Balmorhea sound by including steel pan drums and wordless vocals; other songs continue on in that vein by featuring vibes, synthesizers, and ukulele. But there's a noticeably harder edge to Stranger compared to past Balmorhea outings, something that comes through most clearly during the guitar-heavy parts of “Fake Fealty” and “Artifact” and the no-holds-barred anthem “Dived.” Never before has the group's music sounded as intense as it does in these tracks. Though the group's sound is harder in spots, there are also pieces that document Balmorhea's delicate side, such as “Shore,” a gorgeous setting of guitar-laced moodscaping, and “Pilgrim,” the album's panoramic exeunt. String-laced episodes of pastoral beauty segue into life-affirming moments of joy during the ravishing, folk-styled splendor of “Masollan,” and things also ease up slightly when “Jubi” appears and its chiming electric guitars establish a rather more relaxing though still swinging vibe; it's the song's chant-like vocals, however, that lend the material its wistful, open-hearted quality. After an introductory half where synthesizers and ukuleles armwrestle, “Pyrakantha” morphs in its second half into an ecstatic and quintessentially Balmorhean riff on African Highlife, with all of the joy and swing that such an excursion entails.One of the recording's distinguishing characteristics (something emblematic of Balmorhea in general) is that the music is the primary concern and individual egos aren't an issue. If a given piece calls for two members to sit out, they do so; if it demands that a guitar and bass only are needed to bring a piece into being, so be it. That “music first, ego second” attitude extends to the credits: band member names are listed but little else—no listing of instrumentation or individual photographs, nor anything else of an overly revealing personal nature. Listening to the music's wide-ranging sound and broad sonic palette, it's hard not to be reminded of the Texas soil from which the group's music grew, and the care the group has taken in fashioning this exquisite addition to its discography is evident at every moment.