Friday, July 24, 2009

Album of the Week: The Horse's Ha "Of the Cathmawr Yards"

After the combative ambivalence of my last review (of the Dirty Projectors Bitte Orca album), I'm pleased to come to you with a solid endorsement. In this review, and from now on, I'm dropping the arbitrary rating scale I'd initially devised. Based on conversations with Kevin at Citizen Dick, an awesome site I'm incredibly pleased and proud to announce I will start contributing weekly reviews to, I've decided I like there way best: write up only the stuff you love. In that sense, the review itself is the ranking. If an album gets a review, that means it is great - the text just tells you why. And if it doesn't get one, well, then maybe it wasn't. But who cares about that - life is too short and money too scarce to worry about listening to and writing about albums you don't want to recommend. So from here on, you only get the good stuff from me, both here and there.

Chicago outfit The Horse's Ha is as good a band as any with which to start this newfound string of positive listening out. This band brings almost everything I ask for in a band; namely, intellect and a discernible approach. Anyone who caught the Dylan Thomas references in both the band name and album title already got the intellect part, but for those of you that slept through the Welsh poets section of your British Literature class in undergrad, here's the zombie-ridden scoop (that's right, zombies!).

Dylan Thomas wrote (and lived, for that matter) extensively, and while most of is instinctively recite "rage, rage against the dying of the light" it turns out that Horse's Ha co-founder James Elkington was taken with a considerably more obscure bit of the Welshman's work. In particular, Elkington was moved by a short story titled "The Horse's Ha" (thus explaining the band name), in which the narrative revolved around zombies in a fictitious Welsh graveyard, called "The Cathmawr Yards" (thus explaining the album title). To my ear, that basically ends the zombie references on the album, but it is hardly the end of the intellect. Rather, the album is filled with literate lyrics and stories, the kind that make you want to sit back and take it in. In fact, I don't think I have another album in my record collection, other than perhaps The Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin, that is a better one to put on when you just want the day to be done and you've physically closed up shop for the day though that link between your ears and your brain is still open for business.

The band itself is a tricked-out duo, with the heavy lifting done primarily by British ex-pat cum Chicagoan Elkington and his partner in crime, former Dixie-dweller Janet Beveridge. Really, once you hear this album and think about it, it will dawn on you that it could have only been made in Chicago, with its rich avant garde jazz scene) by a pair of talented folks hailing from, respectively, the American southland and Great Britain. The pair each possess an impressive pedigree filled with names of bands you haven't heard of but probably wish you had (i.e., Eleventh Dream Day, Freakwater, The Zincs), and when they combine with the instrumental chops of other Chicago musicians like cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bass player Nick Macri, and drummer Charles Rumback, you have the indie dream album for grown-ups and younger folks with cautious and catchful ears. Albums as ambitious as this are rare. Rarer still is when the ambition is fulfilled.

At first listen, though, you won't think Chicago when you spin Of The Cathmawr Yards - anything but, really. Instead, the album strikes me as something that sprung from the soul of talented and patient hipsters living in some rural county in a land-locked southern state. As a whole, it is plaintive and pastoral and pretty. Throughout the record, the harmonies work well between the two, and while Elkington's sonorous baritone borders on a drone at point, Beveridge's alto is lovely and rich, though far from heavy. On track after track, the vocals are joined by strings, to the stylized point that you could be forgiven for thinking they were a third vocalist making beautiful non-lyrical sounds, rather than a separately recorded, non-human instrument.

Indeed, the second track of the album ("Asleep in a Waterfall") is completely made by the female vocals and the strings, while on the third track ("Wilds Empty Bedroom") the strings continue to evoke a relaxed affection, especially with the bass and a twanged guitar. (Side note: "Asleep in a Waterfall" also somehow defies my usual default hatred of drummers using brushes on the snare.) In all, the song brings to mind a chamber version of Dean & Britta - lovely and sophisticated, a switch from NYC to London.

"Left Hand" is one of the more notable songs from the album, where the jazz influence of the band is most obvious. On this track, Elkington's vocals are at their most expressive, rich, and clear, and the Spanish, maybe bossa nova vibe make these guys sound like the coolest motherfuckers ever to play Lawrence Welk's show.

The middle of the record is a bit mealy, with tracks like "Liberation," which sounds exactly as the band's name and album title might lead you to expect it to sound, and "The Piss Choir," which is vaguely rocking, but only that. On "Heiress," however, the band picks things up, presenting the song most likely to be classified as pop, with its whimsical chorus and major chord strings. The album closes with "Map of Stars," which provides the perfect closing to the record with its gentle strumming and building, undulating direction. If this song were a film, it would be a love story with an escape, as the hero and his future bride glide down a river in the dark toward a happier future than their past ever was.

For those of you intrigued, I obviously recommend the album. Better yet, the duo will grace the Beachland Tavern stage next weekend, playing a Sunday night gig on August 2nd with openers Golden Ox. I'm not usually a fan of shows on Sunday nights, but I couldn't think of a better time for this pair to perform, tuckered out yet stimulated from the weekend's events, tiredly transitioning from days off to days on while you brain still beeps faster than your pulse. Check them out.

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