[6 August 2004]
One of the greatest grabs from my college radio tenure was 2001’s Lungs for the Race by the Texas outfit Havergal. I took it for several reasons: the attractive powder-blue-on-white packaging, the fact that it was on the Secretly Canadian label (Songs: Ohia, Swearing at Motorists, Scout Niblett), and, well, because I could. I had no idea what to expect from the music itself. The song titles weren’t listed on the back cover, and there were none of the liner notes that usually parse records down to the tiniest detail (“so-and-so tapped his fingers and played bazouki on the hidden track”). What Lungs for the Race ended up being was one of the most overlooked and under-praised records in recent years, a beautiful combination of organic and synthetic textures, an album that studies the loneliness of love, weather, and “rich kids who all turn slut”. Information on the band was scant, reviews nowhere to be found, and there was no word about a possible follow-up. At last, Lungs for the Race no longer sits alone, as we now have Havergal’s Elettricita to sit alongside and swing its legs dreamily.
Havergal is the project of Ryan Murphy, a singer/songwriter/composer who has also bestowed the Western Vinyl label to the world. Where Lungs for the Race featured three sober-looking individuals in its artwork, Elettricita has none. So as far as I can divine, the record is all Murphy. He deals in all manner of sounds, from piano and electric guitar to synth beats and other digital sounds. Occasionally, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s what, as instruments flare up and then dissolve like sparkler trails. When Murphy’s drowsy, double-tracked voice declares “I am a frequency”, you imagine he really might be. While this description could be applied to legions of bummed-out Beck disciples with their fingers in various and sundry post-rock pies, Havergal’s approach sounds unforced, unconcerned with the Johnny-glitch-lately’s down the block.
Compared with Lungs for the Race, Elettricita is more focused, and more crestfallen. After the first album’s release in April of 2001, Murphy moved from Texas to California for three years, and then back again. The changes in both natural and national landscapes between records provide much of the album’s thematic fuel. The opening untitled track is so brief and unassuming you almost miss it, but close listening reveals it to be Elettricita‘s keystone. The first four times I put the album on, track one was just a piano falling off a metronome. But its first few moments contain, faint in the mix, a snippet of a news broadcast about the terrorist attacks on September 11th. The piece casts a long shadow, but Elettricita‘s reactions to the event are entirely apolitical. They’re not Toby Keith, Steve Earle, or even Radiohead, just some hard, personal reflection. Brutal times can make you miss home, “I am a kid who moved from Texas / Born by a kid of the Midwest / ... I miss my friends and my family / All at home where I’d rather be” (“Slugs in the Sun”).
Elsewhere, Havergal seeks reaffirmation of existence on “Drowned Men”, (“Give me a punch square on the nose / Give me a hi up real high”), and engages in some what-does-it-all-mean on “New Innocent Tyro Allegory”, (“Consider the sand / Each grain is a person / Dunes make a nation / Deserts below / Oceans and vessels approach but done / You drift”). But although the songs are generally mid-tempo, and Murphy’s voice retains the sing-speak quality from the first record, it’s not an overly somber record. The songs float somewhere between joy and tragedy. “I Am a Frequency” features speaker buzz and a narcotized beat while the singer intones “I can feel my teeth rot / I almost thought my heart stopped”, but oddly enough, it still sounds possible to dance to it. Just dance really slow. If you missed them the first time, Elettricita isn’t too late to key into what Havergal have been quietly crafting for the past few years. Hopefully it won’t be too long before we hear from them again.