Thursday, July 8, 2010

AEM109 Hallelujah the Hills (Supporting Titus Andronicus 7.10 at Lily's Pad)

This post syndicated from Ampeater Music

Albums, posters and other assorted promotions for Boston's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-aw-fuck-it-let's-mic-up-the-sink indie rock band Hallelujah the Hills all bear the same distinctive collage style. In it, color and grayscale are mixed freely. Perspectives crash into one another, creating a mindfuck of Escher-esque intensity, only without that cute, logic-puzzle element of resolution. Photographs and drawings and computer graphics join forces to create single figures. Ragged edges show. Enormous pencils rain down on a boat that looks to have arrived directly from a renaissance painting. A man drowns another in a pond next to what looks sort of like a filled in multiple choice test. Scientists cribbed from a technicolor film still point to a hand drawn arrow. Stray ink splotches show around the letters that make up the band name, remnants from stamps. It's loose and surreal and unpredictable, but it somehow manages to sustain a consistent mood: an eerie melange of pulp novels, playful non-sequitors, conspiracy theories and David Lynch's nauseous unreality, tempered with the occasional moment of beautiful clarity. It's one of the things I've always admired about Hallelujah the Hills, because it manages to be a perfect illustration of what the band sounds like. Rough-edged, surreal, funny, eerie, packed with lyrics that sound like they were lifted from a pamphlet run off in someone's basement, and dotted with those moments of epiphany (said epiphanies being created by ingenious arranging touches and/or stirring, shouted choruses). For example, there's the moment in “Allied Lions” (a track from the bands most recent album, Colonial Drones) in which a frothy, building rock song suddenly disappears, leaving the line everything's a dream except for this moment we're in now hanging over the void, the lyric broken into three equal parts with audibly different effects on each, collage-style. Then an alarm clock rings.

The art and the songs are both the product of the mind of lead singer Ryan Walsh, formerly of  The Stairs, though the arranging is done by the full band together, who between the seven of them can cover all the usual rock band bases with the addition of trumpet, trombone, cello and sampler. The arrangements are often what catapult the songs out of the realm of rock-with-smart-and-weird-lyrics into a fully formed, coherent, mood-inducing sound, complete with the occasional epic crescendo, for which, as we all know by now, I am a grade A sucker. Take their Ampeater B-side “That Ticking Sound You Hear,” which commences with some minimal two-note guitar strumming, the gentlest mallet-struck cymbals, and a cascading melody fragment that's Walsh at his softest and most lyrical. After making a brief appearance earlier, muted trumpet and cello appear to punctuate the lines out of context / on a substance with startling clusters that disappear just as fast as they arrived. Like Shai Erlichman's songs, the moment is memorable for what it leaves out (the parallel clusters that don't appear after the next two lines) as for what it contains. Soon afterward there is a rising, discordant guitar and trumpet trill which dies into a found sound squeal which abruptly breaks into a bridge that sounds tailor-made for some pounding drums and enormous guitars. Instead, we get more high pitched noises and arhythmic cymbals that fight the core of the song in a way that makes its ominous lyrics all the more ominous, and the full band crash we'd expect is reserved for the very last repeating chorus, where its anthemic potential runs up against the fact that the last repeating chorus is built in elusive five-bar phrases. The arrangement is brilliant because “Ticking” isn't a song that should soar. It's the lament of a conspiracy theorist who's either correct or batshit crazy, and either way things aren't going to turn out well. Even in the last moments of the song, when the vocals have landed safely on the root, the tension remains in the trumpet, which hangs on the major 7 and refuses to resolve upwards the way our western ears want it to.

Walsh's lyrics are full of brilliant and rhythmic one-liners like the master painters all look ashamed / they don’t know the thrill of a jukebox fade, which call to mind the non sequiturs of The Silver Jews' David Berman, with whom Hallelujah the Hills has shared bills (and shares some stylistic markers), only steeped in disaster movies instead of wry, cowboy toughness, and John Ashbery poems instead of whiskey. This attention to words (I have it on good authority that Walsh has been known to perform “Google Purity tests,” a concept coined and invented by Berman which involves searching for lyrical ideas to make sure that they are entirely original) pays off in spades, for where most bands in the indie rock world get stuck exploring the same ideas with the same words and making them sound cool via loud guitars or some such, Hallelujah the Hills's lyrics are full of couplets that are clever and funny and touching and use words that you have probably not recently heard in a rock song, like, say, documentarian or cohorts, without sacrificing any of the rhythm that lyrics have to have to carry a rock song. AND they have loud guitars. What more could you ask for?

A-side “Introductory Saints” (another classic Hallelujah the Hills title) showcases the less moody side of the band, laying those propulsive lyrics over a bouncy backbeat, garnished with some some light country (those twangy lead lines over in your left ear, the way the melody dips from the root up an octave at the end of the chorus, that last ringing major 6 chord) and soul-pop touches (organ smears, those repeating guitar stabs in your right ear, the fat brass longtones), and ending in the Hallelujah the Hills staple of an enormous, rousing gang-vocal chorus (something about Walsh's trebly voice becomes electric when he jumps up the octave into a shout at a climactic moment; it always gets me, (you can also hear it leaping out from the gang vocal mix on Titus Andronicus' The Monitor). From the first line, this song really brings out the way Walsh's lyrics fit together just loosely enough to leave endless space open for potential meaning. The opening couplet of "Gentlemen / he said forever" opens so many possibilities it's easy to project your own meanings onto it, something that's so often true of his songs.

Hallelujah the Hills have released these two songs to celebrate their departure on a summer tour opening for Titus Andronicus (who members of Hills will also be joining onstage to provide cello, brass, keys and gang vocals), a one two punch you'd be wise to check out. With so many members, Hallelujah The Hills have the ability live to create an enormous, euphoric wall of sound, especially when all of the members are not only playing at top volume but shouting a big, unison hook that hangs over the entire room. You'll find it hard not to feel the upward pull of those enormous clouds of melody, and it will bring a little joy to your heart.

Tour dates
July 8 – Allston, MA – Great Scott
July 9 – Brooklyn, NY – Union Hall
July 10 – New Haven, CT – Lily's Pad*
July 11 – Northampton, MA – Pearl Street*
July 12 – Albany, NY – Valentine's*
July 13 – Buffalo, NY – Ninth Ward at Babeville*
July 14 – Toronto, ON – Horseshoe Tavern*
July 15 – Grand Rapids, MI – Intersection Lounge*
July 16 – Chicago, IL – Subterranean*
July 18 – Youngstown, OH – Lemon Grove Cafe
* = Opening for Titus Andronicus

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