Friday, April 12, 2013

Album Review: Home By Hovercraft - Are We Chameleons?

Album Rating: B
Sometimes, appreciating the beauty of life becomes most difficult precisely when you need beauty the most. The burdens of every day have a way of silently crushing you, as the books in your bag push your head down until all you can see is the gravel. My school rests on top of a hill, and each step I take these days feels heavy—April in Korea is the most colorful time of the year, with the cherry blossoms coming into full bloom, but for high school seniors, it’s a mental hell. The timing is apt, for theatre-rock troupe Home By Hovercraft’s debut release, Are We Chameleons?, is a much-needed panacea for these trying times. It’s so bright it’s practically drenched in color, but its aesthetic qualities belie an album that’s more than willing to delve into the darker reaches of the human heart—even if it ultimately comes out triumphant.

The band’s strongest attribute is its playful instrumentation. As soon as a wistful piano line opens “Lie In Your Bed,” the band sets the tone of the entire album, a backdrop of sadness bathed in sunlight. The band utilizes a palette of appealing sounds, relying heavily on the piano for both melody and rhythm but also bringing in strings, xylophone, harmonica, and even tuba when necessary. There’s often a disparity between the uplifting music and the introspective lyrics, though: the summery “Rocket” features a surprisingly morbid chorus centered on dealing with death, while mid-album ballad “Out Of My Head With It” illustrates its titular concept by layering Seth Magill’s fretful vocals over hushed, intimate instrumentation.

Further coloring in this distinction are the theatrical tendencies running throughout Are We Chameleons?. Most prominently, the album plays quite a bit with rhythms, finding a balance between the sweeping movements of classical music and the more down-to-earth, scrappy cadence of indie-rock. The piano bounces with an unusual gusto, while the band’s percussion has a charmingly military bent. “In Hand” opens with some snappy drum rolls before spinning into a sardonic ditty about breaking the mold. The band’s penchant for the dramatic offers both pros and cons: while rich with emotion, the song suffers from some lines that even the characters of Glee would find too on-the-nose (“Conform, conform, obey, obey,” mimes Magill in the chorus in a particularly groanworthy moment).

Perhaps Home By Hovercraft’s most unique attribute is its vocals. Husband/wife pair Seth and Shawn Magill create an interesting dynamic, the former, a deep-throated tenor, taking on the texture of sandpaper and the latter smoothing out the harmonies. The male Magill, in particular, shines: there’s a bit of Sarah McLachlan syndrome going on when it gets difficult to make out the lyrics, but his rough, flighty voice grounds Are We Chameleons? in real human emotions, keeping the cutesier elements in check.

All in all, Are We Chameleons? is about balance, both musical and emotional. Though a whiff of melancholy lies beneath most of the album, it never drags sonically, with both reserved, thoughtful ballads (the aforementioned “Out Of My Head With It” and the outstanding “Relief”) and upbeat rockers (“Talk,” which has hints of Greg Laswell in the driving piano line and Magill’s carefully measured performance, and the scrappy, energetic “40 Winks”). The band isn't above tipping the scales, though: “Modernized” starts off as a straightforward dialogue between singer and piano on the nature of adapting, but it gradually crescendos into a more resolute affirmation. Home By Hovercraft’s primary concern is the nature of dreams and change, but it’s safe to say that it holds a more optimistic view than most.

Revealingly, the band waits until “Blessed Highway,” the last song of the album, to finally play its hand: the most out-and-about happy song on the album, it’s an optimistic note to end on. “The blessed highway’s always full,” the band yowls together, sun blazing over Route 66 and everybody packed into the pickup barreling down the road at 10 miles over the speed limit. It’s a boldly universal declaration of courage in the face of doubt, a fitting ending to an album that’s all about hope, even when despair is easier. And wherever you are, mired down in the daily grind, hope is a pretty darn beautiful thing to behold.

Band Website

1. Lie In Your Bed
2. Rocket
3. In Hand
4. Talk
5. Out Of My Head With It
6. Waking Sleeping
7. Modernized
8. Zoo Lion
9. 40 Winks
10. Relief
11. Blessed Highway

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