It’s been four years since the last Holopaw record, and a lot has changed for these guys, apparently all for the better. For one, they’ve shifted from indie giant Sub Pop to the smaller Bakery Outlet label, essentially setting out on their own for Oh, Glory. Oh, Wilderness.. Just that shift in labels alone is a smart move for Holopaw, since over at Sub Pop, with their soft, shuffling sound, they came across like the underachieving younger brothers to the likes of Beachwood Sparks and Fruit Bats.
But it’s not just the label shift that has let them strike out on their own. The band’s sound had shifted into something more sweeping and cinematic, and something awfully good. New drummer Jody Bilinski plays the kit loose, leaving holes for John Orth to fill with affecting and meandering melodies.
The gentle bed of guitar work that weaves through every song—stretching out over large swaths of sound—gives the band a lot of space to move around in. And they take full advantage of it, offering their most varied set of tunes yet. The early-morning sway of “The Lazy Matador” shifts into the shaky and hurt “P-A-L-O-M-I-N-E”. The building storm of “The Cherry Glow” leads into the grinding power-pop of “Black Lacquered Shame”. And the album closes on the bracing folk-pop of “The Conductor and the Hobbyist (Avalanche)”, which links up all the ache and energy of the album into one infectious sound.
Through it all, John Orth pulls off a strong and versatile vocal performance. His crackling warble may be a bit much for some to deal with, but once you give yourself over to it, Orth’s voice can be heartbreaking or it can be quietly triumphant. When he claims he’ll “close my eyes and hold my breath”, his thin voice cuts off like he’ll do it right then. But when he whispers out lines like “We act like boys, and forget like men,” the lines land with more power than he could have mustered shouting them. Warbling or not, Orth’s voice commands your attention, whether cutting through the bright pop of “Little Stallion with a Glass Jaw”, or weaving like a cobweb over a quiet ballad like “The Last Transmission (Honeybee)”.
With all this working—the spin and fall of Orth’s vocals, the tangling guitars, Bilinski’s striking cymbal work—the addition of thick stringed arrangements and horns would seem unnecessary. But most of the time, the flourishes work. “Little Stallion with a Glass Jaw”, for example, is all of a sudden triumphant when the horns kick in. True, sometimes the swell of strings threatens to push sweet songs into becoming saccharine. In fact, they end up weighing down the already sluggish “Oh, Glory” in the middle of the record. But then “The Cherry Glow” comes in and picks the record right back up, and these guys never look back.
Oh, Glory. Oh, Wilderness. is the best record we’ve got from a band that was always solid, and also a statement from these guys. They are back, and they are not the band you remember from four years ago. And while that Holopaw was fine, it’s pretty nice to meet this new one.