New twist on familiar sounds makes for a great album

By Tom Zimpleman

I believe it was William James who said “the line between what is me and mine is very hard to draw.” I presume that this holds true for the things we inherit just as it does for the things that we voluntarily acquire. If such is the case, then Holopaw are as much a part of you and me as any band possibly can be. They are the modern, but nonetheless easily recognizable, standard bearers for a type of American music, and a type of American culture, that we have all inherited: the world of backwoods stories, guitars strummed on front porches, and densely meaningful songs sung on starry summer evenings. While some of this rhetoric oversells the point, I mean only to say that there’s something different, maybe even innovative, about Holopaw’s self-titled first album–but also something very familiar.

Warnings flags are no doubt going up. Holopaw is obviously influenced by the music of the American South, and both outsiders and insiders have been very sensitive to charges of exploitation in regard to the South. This has held true at least since James Agee and Walker Evans decided to call themselves “spies” and openly question the motives of themselves and their readers when describing the lives of sharecropper families. Understandably, nobody was really concerned when cast members from Matewan started recording albums, but the exploitation fear has come up again in music circles more recently–particularly after a pop band from Boston reinvented themselves as a group of kitchen-table folkies named the Scud Mountain Boys, and one of the leading figures of alt-country, Ryan Adams, decided to break up his band to release a series of pleasant, if decidedly more cosmopolitan, albums. Deciding whether Holopaw is the real deal or not is beside the point, however; none of them are engaged in anything that would demand a cultural authenticity check of any sort. They are not trying to replicate a particular era’s sound or a particular place’s culture, but rather to take a series of influences–folk, roots rock, and more recent southern rock–and combine them with contemporary studio techniques to produce a new kind of folk-pop: more calculated than traditional folk or country, less ingratiating than early ’70s country-rock, and less abrasive than recent alt-country.

An obvious point of comparison is with last year’s Ugly Casanova album, Sharpen Your Teeth, and it is also a very easy comparison, since both albums were produced by Chicago native Brian Deck, and Holopaw lead singer John Orth co-wrote most of that album with Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock. It was that album, I assume, that led Holopaw to its current deal with Sub Pop, which after this and the first Iron and Wine album has become the place for the new Americana.

Unlike the shadowy experimentalism that Brock seemed to bring to Ugly Casanova, Orth’s influence could be heard on the bright and wistful “Smoke Like Ribbons,” which among a snap poll of listeners would probably be everyone’s favorite song. Holopaw continues in much the same way, although Orth only received credit for vocals, and the songwriting is probably a democratic affair among the five band members. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the album has a definite vision. The songs all fall into the same rough category, and very little genre-stretching occurs. I thus feel obliged to evaluate it in the same way Howard Hawks proposed to evaluate a good movie: “three good scenes, no bad scenes.” So, I’m hoping to find three good songs, and no bad songs, adjusting when needed.

Three songs stand out immediately: “Abraham Lincoln,” the opener, displays more of the band’s knack for catchy songwriting than Deck’s production genius. It sounds like it could have been recorded at a hootenanny in someone’s backyard rather than in the plush confines of a recording studio, but that doesn’t diminish it one bit. Bonus points ought to be awarded for the mysterious lyrics: “A pale green light vibrates across the Abraham Lincoln, over the boys swapping licks and girls spinning cursive across clipper ships.” Next, “Short-Wave-Hum” nearly makes a liar out of those who would describe Holopaw as alt-country. The muted strings and whistling in the background of this dust-and-sun composition have nothing “alt” about them. Finally, “Mammoth Cave” is an early candidate for song of the year. A two-minute masterpiece with enough tricks up its sleeve for an entire double album, it shows that nobody in Holopaw is afraid to bet the house when they know what’s waiting on Fifth Street (if you can forgive the metaphor from Texas Hold’em). The overlapping guitar strums are covered by a beautiful studio hum that sounds vaguely like the sound of rushing water, an accordion that weaves in and out of audibility, and Orth’s fluid drawl, which wraps itself around some poetic and astonishingly beautiful lyrics about azaleas and lamb’s ears. While I have no idea what the song is about, I know it’s damn good.

There are a few missteps: “Cinders” is a failed experiment in tempo and mix that I imagine Deck talked the band into and it’s all the more unfortunate given that it echoes the “pulled in ribbons from the car” line from “Smoke Like Ribbons.” “Teacup Woozy” might be a great piece of down-home slang– “she was feeling teacup woozy” –but it doesn’t do much as a song. I would wager, however, that “Pony Apprehension,” with its infectious pedal steel work, cancels out one of these, and “Heaven,” with its all-American lyrics about horses tangled in bridal veils, cancels out the other. Anyone not averse to twang in their music can be confident, then, that their decision to sign on to this particular venture will pay certain dividends. It may be yeoman’s work at times, but something tells me that it’s all a part of the greater vision.