Monday, June 17, 2013

Album Review: The Hush Now - Memos

Album Rating: B-
As much as we love to place ourselves at the center of our Very Hollywood Stories, our day-to-days are rarely as fun or stimulating as what’s playing at the local theater. The sun’s always couched behind the clouds; the rainbows are muted and our clothes are never in Technicolor. Our words fall just short of eloquence, our conflicts simmer rather than explode, and if the final act ever takes place at the airport, it's not because we caught the one in the nick of time—we’re watching the plane take off. On the whole, I suppose Memos does a fine job capturing all of that. A series of sketches steeped in understated sadness, it’s a fine companion for a sleepy second period, a brief walk down the Han River, or a lonely midnight spent writing essays for some music discovery website that offers no health benefits or even pay. If only it weren’t as slight as its title suggested.

With “Arkansas”, the band puts its best foot forward. It’s an amiable start to an amiable album: the piano has a spring in its step, and the vocals waft over the fray like the aroma of a pie you can’t quite place the flavor of. But the band also sneaks in a little fuzz around the edges, where the guitars rankle like coins in weathered gym shorts and the drums are waves pounding the silt on the beach into dust. It’s a good barometer of what the weather’s like in the following nine tracks, and it displays all of the strengths of Memos in a nutshell: strong polish, a sturdy identity, and the seamless blending of different musical elements.

Alas, the sturdiness that is Memos’ strongest suit is also its Achilles' heel--sometimes it just doesn't make a mark. “Clouds” is as dreamy as any song titled "Clouds" should be, but it strains for a high it can’t quite reach. The production dilutes hooks and vocals that are strong on paper while mashing the various instruments into a hazy porridge. And as relaxing as “A Mother's Lament” is (thanks to some lovely violins…or are those woodwinds), it’s sonic cotton candy. The moment it’s melted down your throat, mother dearest will be fast asleep in her rickety rocking chair.

Also problematic is the album’s lack of dynamic force. The lack of momentum to the melodies or instrumentation on "The Glow" is disappointing (though it is admittedly ultra funky): it’s like dressing up in your black-tie best only to retreat to the bar and get hammered. “Cameraphone” is similarly frustrating. It’s a textural smorgasbord boasting guitars violated with sandpaper, hunky-dory swing beats, and sunny electronic keys, but the vocals toe the wrong side of pained/painful, and without a solid core, the song fails to summit.

To its credit, though, the band wanders into plenty of intriguing (and often beautiful) places on Memos. The title track is a fine example of the band keeping things engaging without losing any of the atmosphere. As melancholy as it is, the incorporation of mandolin and harps adds some lovely texture, finding grace in the throes of love. The gorgeous “Sitting On A Slow Clock” may be the quietest song on the album, but it’s anything but forgettable. Hushed and wonderfully emotive, it conjures images of hands intertwined on park benches with the leaves of autumn parachuting down around them. Here, lead vocalist Noel Kelly’s delicate approach is a calculated choice: if you listen close enough, you can just hear his heart thumping.

The band also wisely ratchets up the intensity in its second half, finally speaking up for once on “Rooftops,” where it channels the giddy wonder of Hellogoodbye from behind empty shot glasses. I like much about “Pete's Best,” but more than anything I like how loud it is, how it demands the audience’s attention in a way The Hush Now rarely does. Haunted-house synth lines, sturdy, weighted drum beats, and intermittent bursts of guitar static spell a blockbuster apocalypse, a late highlight of Memos.

Ultimately, the title of The Hush Now's latest is apt: as an whole, it’s all a bit underwhelming. Most listeners will give it a cursory read before folding it into a paper crane or sticking it onto an unsuspecting colleague’s back. Yet word-for-word, this memo is well-constructed and intriguing enough that The Hush Now can still count on winning the continued attention of quite a few listeners: hopefully, it’ll be a little bit more outspoken the next go round.

And if not, hey, every protagonist could use a decent soundtrack.

Artist Website

Track Listing
1. Arkansas
2. Clouds
3. Memos
4. Cameraphone
5. The Glow
6. Sitting On A Slow Clock
7. Rooftops
8. A Mother's Lament
9. Pete's Best
10. Things Fall Down

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