Review: Houndmouth – From The Hills Below The City

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3.5

The debut album From The Hills Below The City from folk-rock Indiana four-piece Houndmouth rolls around the Southern states easily enough, but breaks no ground.

A talented quartet, they’ve nailed the Americana sound to within an inch of The Band. Their knowledge of and skill on each of their instruments is evident from the first track. Their precision, instrumentally and vocally, sets them apart; when you’re making what is essentially unoriginal music, this really is necessary.

The record is bluesy, country, roots rock with some corking guitar solos, very pleasant organ, an urgent and excitable rhythm section, and plenty of Southern twang with no discernable lead vocalist. This free-for-all approach, relying on the band’s experience and ability live rather than any spangly production, lends the album the atmosphere of a late-night jam in a Kentucky bar… so pretty much ideal.

The references are mainly to life on the road, the singer’s various vices or troubles and an assortment of American towns and states: Illinois, Kentucky, Cherokee, Tennessee and Memphis (the latter crops up a number of times). Tradition though it may be, the needless effort made to locate the record seems a shame and, with the music handled so skilfully and four more than capable vocalists on board, a bit of lyrical invention would have shot this album into a different league. The genre’s very nature makes the chord patterns and song structures predictable; the words, though, don’t need to be.

Long As You’re At Home is so close to Americana tradition that it verges on pastiche, and Hey Rose feels like more of an excuse to sing the word ‘Hey’ lots of times about a surely fictional girl called Rose “from a coal mine town” than a creative expression of a real feeling or situation. It’s upbeat and jolly enough, but it’s not very believable.

That said, there are great moments: the delicate opening to Krampus and the beautiful vocal line in the verses of Palmyra. For me, the highlight is Come On Illinois; there’s something about its plodding, downtrodden beat, the sparse accompaniment to a brilliantly simple melody, the evocative lyrics and rousing, if slightly too frequent, climaxes, that set it apart from the rest of the album. This song shows what Houndmouth are capable of, and it’s addictive – subtle but invigorating and impossible to forget.

Don’t expect to have your mind blown by the invention of this record – that’s not what it’s about. Rather, get stuck into the confidence and accomplishment of these four musicians, their energy, wit, and ability to create moments of serious oomph.

Anna Byrne