Thursday, January 17, 2013

Album Review: Venna - Third Generation Hymnal

Album Rating: B
"I am content with wanting."

So goes the refrain to "Married," which opens folk duo (and real-life married couple Heather and Marky Hladish) Venna's second release (and first in five years), Third Generation Hymnal. Yet as gloomy as that phrase may sound on paper, the mantra is a succinct summation of what makes this album so refreshing: the album's simple, intimate tunes may sound welcoming, but the delightfully complex sentiments within elevate this release from folk-by-the-numbers into a thoughtful and even liberating treatise on what it means to love.

Of course, that's not to take away from how good most of the songs here are, and more surprising still is Venna's ability to yield great dividends from precious little. To briefly return to the first track, the subdued, melancholy "Married" is a succinct demonstration of what the duo excels at: spinning dark thoughts into honest but hopeful resolutions. Vocalist Heather Hladish opens with a real conundrum of a line: "I've spent a lot of time / Rehearsing these lines / To recite to you in breathless succession," she coos gently, her tone resolute but betraying hints of vulnerability. Assisting her amiable, understated voice is some fantastic instrumentation: the acoustic guitar plays effective counterpoint against her in the barren verses, and when she launches into the chorus, everything around her stops for a few moments before the accordion and drums cough up dust and bloom beautifully. The grasp of dynamics and atmosphere Venna displays on Third Generational Hymnal fills each track with a sense of depth, showing just how important good songwriting can be in elevating little details into big statements.

Unfortunately, the band occasionally struggles to expand their stripped-back sound into enough to fill an LP: "Sweden Is The Reason," ostensibly an attempt at a crowdpleasing barnyard stomper, buries Heather Hladish's charmingly winsome voice underneath a cornucopia of noise. In the context of the album, it does succeed at livening up the proceedings, but the song isn't as captivating on its own. (The stirring "12 Shades To The Wind" is a much more successful anthem, brimming with handclaps which crackle like fireworks and rousing gang chants.) Meanwhile, penultimate track "Oh No," which is just a home recording of Heather Hladish and a child mock-singing the titular phrase, is a real puzzler; perhaps it's meant to serve as a bit of levity in the midst of all the emotion, but extending what's essentially a joke to two minutes and thirty seconds dilutes any real significance the weird little detour might have. While the handful of missteps on here are far outweighed by the hits, it's a shame that they hold back a potentially top-notch album from reaching its full potential.

Where Venna truly shine, however, is in their relentlessly honest--and poignant--portrayal of what it means to commit to and love somebody. Take the compelling "Quitting Contest", which builds on a breezy guitar line with some of the more overt displays of frustration to be found in Third Generational Hymnal (sample line: "Let's see who gets well first / I've got my money on you.") but avoids wallowing in empty misery by flowering into a radiant climax replete with explosive drums and swirls of harmonies hanging on the edges of the production. "Meet Me In The Hammock" features some incredible atmospheric work in its gentle but majestic one-minute intro before building into a portrait of a relationship rich with detail and emotional stakes. The duo saves the best for last with "Lovin's For Fools," easily the most moving cut on Third Generation Hymnal: though it's actually a cover of a Sarah Siskind song, it feels entirely original. It's dark but full of hope, happily resigned to the paradoxes of love. The song is a thesis in the duo's strongest qualities, turning up the mood of isolation by stripping down the production and instrumentation and letting the lyrics--and Heather Hladish's weary voice--shine. As husband and wife harmonize for the first time on the last few lines, singing "You'll never know dear / How much I love you / Loving's for fools / Loving's for fools," both sound heartbroken, yet the moment is oddly triumphant; it's an indelible moment to go out on and proof of just how these two folks can sharpen a simple little love song and stab you in your chest with its broken shards.

For all of the excesses and imperfections of Third Generational Hymnal, it's jam-packed with moments like the one it chooses to end on, and those moments add up to a vivid portrait of the lives and the people we choose. Sometimes we aren't we think they will be. Our stories are seldom as romantic as the ending to whatever movie Lifetime is reairing at this very moment. All you have is another body wrapped in your embrace and the vague hope things will work out in 20 or 30 years and this road isn't just going to weather away to dust. But for the time being, Venna seems to be content with wanting. I, for one, couldn't be more content with that sentiment.

1. Married
2. 12 Shades to the Wind
3. Quitting Contest
4. Sweden is the Reason
5. Danger - Past & Present
6. Meet Me in the Hammock
7. Oh No
8. Lovin's for Fools

1 comment:

  1. Very perceptive review! I love this band and wanted to add: I just listened to the track "OH,NO" and was so moved. At first listen some might groan and think "oh how cute, parents wanting to show off their kid on their recording". But as with the entire album there is a beautiful and subtle message here to be gained. I work every day with children who's parents did not care enough or take the time to say "no" to their child. For children, growing up with out boundaries is frightening and dangerous. In this song we hear the artist, struggling to focus on her work, (and I have been there). The recording captures Heather setting aside her frustration and allowing the moment to evolve into a co-creation of it's own. By including this track Mark and Heather take the risky road here to share with us a beautiful example of how we can lovingly include, share with, and teach our children to be artists in their own right, and that "No" does not have to be a closed door. The experience of "no" can be one of love and mutual respect. Applause for your courage and innovation, Heather and Mark. You are parents extraordinaire! This track makes a definite and worthy contribution to an album about the married lives of artists.