[30 April 2009]
Before experiencing Inside Your Guitar, the debut album from the cuddly-named UK dream pop band It Hugs Back, you should be prepared. First, check to make sure there aren’t any sharp objects nearby. Not necessarily because Inside Your Guitar is depressing, but because it’s an album whose beautiful yet fragile sounds are incredibly breakable and an album that will immediately cause you to fall into either a) the deepest, helpless, zombie-like slumber you’ve experienced in years, or b) a reclined state of bliss. (For me, it was actually a bit of both.) Whichever case it may be, Inside Your Guitar, will indeed lull you into repose.
Second, I recommend sequestering yourself at night in a quaint gingerbread house in the woods, preferably somewhere in northern England. (A southern New Jersey basement will work too, if you can’t wrangle the cross-Atlantic plane fare.) The important thing is that it be absolutely quiet. The sounds on Inside Your Guitar are so fragile, so delicate, that any environmental distractions—traffic, dogs barking, the beating of your heart—might cause you to miss the album entirely. (I made the mistake of first listening to Inside Your Guitar on my MP3 player while walking down an Oakland, California street on a Sunday morning. I forgot the MP3 player was even on until the sixth song on the album started.)
Finally, make sure you have a few key supplies on hand, including a stockpile of energy bars to help focus your senses on deciphering at least one word of vocalist Matthew Simms’ barely audible lyrics, and several boxes of Kleenex for the tears that ensue after you’ve deciphered a handful of those lyrics.
Fortunately, the sacrifice that comes with the above preparations is worth it once you hear Inside Your Guitar.
Inside Your Guitar is deceptively mellow. Even the uptempo, non-mellow tracks seem mellow. Yet it’s not the folky, new age sound that most listeners have come to associate with mellow indie music. Instead, it’s the type of mellow that could only come from an album released by 4AD, the legendary British label that’s been home to everyone from the Cocteau Twins and Mojave 3 to the Red House Painters and St. Vincent. (Music nerd aside: 4AD turns 30 this year! Can you identify the label’s original name?) Inside Your Guitar is a 4AD album through and through. It’s a lo-fi symphony, filled with a smorgasbord of disparate sounds and emotions. It’s chock-full of intricately layered harmonies, tiptoed beats, and whispered vocals. It’s the aural equivalent of one of those miniature cities you see in toy store display windows, complete with the fake snow and model train squirting out of a tunnel and around the city.
Any number of bands (many of them 4AD groups) come to mind when you hear Inside Your Guitar: the quiet wistfulness of Lisa Germano; the washes of sound on a My Bloody Valentine record; the lo-fi, monotone aesthetic of Bedhead; the fuzzy electronica of Stereolab; the slithery guitar arpeggios of American Football. Actually, the description of It Hugs Back provided on the band’s web site pretty much nails it: “Switching between joyous pop-punk delight and delicate melancholia in a heartbeat, It Hugs Back melt layers of fuzzy vocals and guitars into their reassuring blend of endearing shoegaze and heart-on-sleeves vulnerability.” Whoa.
Regardless of how you describe it, highlights abound on Inside Your Guitar. The opener, “Q”, starts off as a droney, dreamy lullaby, fuzzily eking its way along. Halfway through the song, while the music remains the same, the drums switch from a shuffle to a more straight ahead rhythm. It sounds inconsequential, but, instead, it is quite magical and makes the entire song. It is this type of spontaneous change, completed so subtly, so quietly, that makes Inside Your Guitar exciting. If you’re not paying attention or there’s environmental noise distracting you, you’re likely to miss these moments. But when you catch them, they are a joy to experience.
It Hugs Back get as close to rocking out as they can on “Work Day”, “Back Down”, and “Now + Again”. These pop gems are pure bubblegum, filled with sweet lyrics, sugary hooks, and fuzzy, corn-syruped keyboards (no high fructose necessary). Again, you’ll need to pay attention so as not to miss the delicate harmonies, but it’s worth it.
There are some drawbacks to Inside Your Guitar. It Hugs Back rarely vary their sound. Volume, tempo, and tone are fairly consistent from song to song. If you don’t have the patience to absorb all of the album’s intricate, very subdued twists and turns, the songs can easily sound like one long droney blur. And if you’re a fan of comprehensible lyrics, you should probably look elsewhere. Simms either had laryngitis when the album was recorded or else he really excels at the children’s game telephone. His lyrics are felt more than they are understood. Much more.
Inside Your Guitar is certainly a product of its label and many of It Hugs Back’s bandmates on 4AD. It’s music that requires a few listens before all the nuances reveal themselves. If you’re willing to make the effort, you will be handsomely rewarded. But for many—namely those who find It Hugs Back’s fragile sound too breakable—that “if” may be too large to overcome.