When I first listened to the new Hush Arbors record, I wasn’t entirely taken by it. Not so now, as I return from a country drive for the hell of it, for a dose of their Yankee Reality.
Due to the comfortable manner in which they make the transition it wasn’t immediately apparent, but this record marks a distinct shift in the Hush Arbors discography. It was foreseen by last years self-titled CD, their first for the Ecstatic Peace label. Although that record was in part made up of various studio recordings, it retained the digital meets four track essence that once tied the band to a scene.
This recording took place in various parts of the Eastern United States, including Vermont and Massachusetts, not so far from songwriter Keith Wood’s roots, though he currently resides in London. He and guitarist Leon Dufficy (who has long been integral to Hush Arbors) were joined by multi-instrumentalist Jason Ajemian and drummer Ryan Sawyer, perhaps just for the recordings, perhaps they will play live. It was produced and engineered by Justin Pizzoferrato and J. Mascis.
Despite this continuous move towards studio fidelity and quasi-conventional folk-rock dynamics, Keith Wood’s voice and songwriting remain hard (or at least strange) things to grasp. Rather than a hangover effect, this is an exercise in retaining the essential artistic character common to any songwriter worth their salt; a quality which interacts with, but is not dependent on recording techniques. The aforementioned shift that has become clearer over the past week runs deeper than the mixing and the instrumentation. This is a cohesive record of individual songs, rather than a multi-limbed stab at an aesthetic, or the random accumulation of disparate works.
Two well-worn classics from the Hush Arbors demo/live catalogue are included, the persistent sentimental shuffle of ‘Fast Asleep’ and the nimble ‘Coming Home’. To hear them all spit and shine for the first time was like meeting a scruffy friend with a spiffy new haircut. Ryan Sawyer’s sunny railroad drumming is as light and airy as a song like ‘Coming Home’ demands, the sweeping string synth verges on epic but thankfully retains a slightly eerie edge. Leon Dufficy’s tight ‘n fuzzy guitar licks don’t overdo it, a skill he exhibits throughout the album, except when called upon to pour forth on tracks like ‘For While You Slept’.
The clarity has allowed me to hear far more of Wood’s musings on “the space between this island and my soul” than I have previously. His voice has not always been easy to discern, being weak in precise projection but very high in lazy character. So to hear it this clearly is a real pleasure, let alone so full of colour and almost dissonant in the occasional shivering lull.
This recording of ‘Fast Asleep’ is a definitive studio version. It sounds like a simple monkey-strut-strummer to begin with, but within the dirt it kicks up with just a handful of chords lies an archaeological record of something bigger than nostalgia, romance and melancholy; there is a huge beam of ancient light snaking its way through this record’s foundations and here it comes very close to the surface. The slightly grainy synth is the perfect addition to the subdued acoustic guitar, as is the simple kick drum. It’s a naked song.
The joyous loping of ‘So They Say’ lists drunkenly from side to side, balanced by stabs of reverbed electric guitar and regal drumming. The other day I put the record on in the kitchen, chopped some onions then disappeared upstairs. As the fat bass, waltzing rhythm and squelching lead guitar of ‘Take it Easy’ made their way through the floorboards of my bedroom I honestly found myself feeling frustrated that my missus had put Neil Young on during my brief absence. This is the kind of comparison that is frequently used to sell shit, but let me try and elaborate: it felt like a Neil Young song, rather than just sounding like one.
Much of this record is a manifesto of acceptance: hard things to swallow like pride, memories and the “broken steps” of ‘One Way Ticket’, a spiralling coming-to-terms-with-it sort of song, led to a heady swirl by the resolute piano riff. Wood is dyed in the wool romantic, finding a love for life in the hardest moments without betraying the heartache or pawning it for movin’ on whimsy.
“If I could remember a memory, to make it all alright / To take away all these broken steps and the senseless fights / If I could hear the voice that reminds me that everything is alright”.
His belief that the voice is there, even when obscured, is integral to this album, culminating in the ecstatic roar of ‘Devil Made You High’. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Richard and Linda Thompson records, an influence that Wood has cited from time to time. His devotion to the craft of songwriting (i.e. the development of various songwriting approaches side by side), and a subtlety of phrase and mood, make him worthy of comparison in terms of calibre but there is a distinct difference.
Listening to the Thompson’s impeccable album I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight from 1974, I occasionally find myself wincing at the morose self-pity which spills over that sharp curve of observation; though it’s no accident on songs like ‘We Sing Hallelujah’ and ‘End of the Rainbow’. I have a certain respect (and perhaps a weakness) for the brazen depression of lines like “A man is like his father, wishes he’d never been born!” but I have a lot more love for a songwriter who has decided to move forward without the blinkers.
This album is still growing on me; by the listen, day by day. It’s worn and it’s beat up, it’s feral and it’s chock full of heart. Even after the repetitive review listens that often kill an album where it stands Yankee Reality feels like a quarry of songs filled with a vivid water I have barely seen my reflection in, let alone broken the surface of. It’s far deeper than initial impressions suggested. The gothic hymnal march of ‘Sun Shall’, the jangling twelve string guitar of ‘For While You Slept’; I get the distinct impression that they will endure.
It’s a strange thought that for some people out there the bright opening salvo of the particularly Thompson-esque ‘Day Before’ and the gust of ‘Lisbon’ might become the first few minutes spent with the Virginian’s quivering, high altitude poems. I hope this record’s irrepressible shimmer sends more than a few back to last years self-titled record and to rusty old gems like Landscape of Bone.
“So we looked around, went back to that same tree,
Saw the blood streaming out towards the sea.
She closed her eyes and collapsed in front of me,
I closed my eyes and wished I knew where she should be.”
- From ‘Lisbon’.