Over three albums, Holopaw achieved a sort of mesmerizing sleight of hand. They sounded fragile – particularly with John Orth’s wavering vocals – and their compositions felt ramshackle, foundations of brittle wood and loose screws. They felt cracked, broken down, desiccated. Repeated listens, though, especially to 2009’s Oh Glory, Oh Wilderness, revealed a strength and cohesion to their sound. Holopaw is a band capable of stretching out into all manners of pop music, but there was a center to their sound, and that center finds a new focus on Academy Songs Volume One.
The cohesion is presented pretty much up front, at least thematically, on this new album. Orth wrote a ten-song cycle that takes place at an all-boys academy, weaving tales of self-discovery and heartache, camaraderie and betrayal, throughout these sweetly forlorn songs. It’s not always clear what the overall arc of the story is, but Orth gives us intimate moments, achingly personal details, that drive the album forward and get us in the space of these boys that seem simultaneously hemmed in by their lost-ness and cut free from the world outside the academy walls.
The album’s wandering sonic palate, its movements – sometimes tenuous, sometimes angry, sometimes blustery and unleashed in only the way lost young men can be – lends itself well to the confusion and hope to discover that shapes these songs. “Diamonds”, with its dreamy, pastoral acoustic guitar and swaying echo of vocals feels particularly reticent, curious about a path to start down, and hopeful for a grand outcome no matter the choice. “This might make diamonds,” the voices coo out, full of equal parts optimism and worry. By “Dirty Boots He Don’t” the voices take firmer shape, and we get into the physical representation of maturity, or what happens to these boys as they grow and learn (i.e. “the marks on his body”). The music itself also feels more riled up and yet still lost in confusion here, the guitars spiraling more in search of purpose than with one inherently already.
Academy Songs Volume One navigates well the gray spaces, the murky area between discovery and understanding. It’s best when it bursts open in larger sounds, sounds that show the blind excitement or scraped-raw nerve of the most volatile experiences these boys face. “Golden Sparklers” is wide-eyed and excellent, both communal and isolated. The narrator wows at the bursts of roman candles, much as other students must, but he also must “wipe the sweat from the window” to see them, which is to say he is apart, sick with fever, and as such excluded from the celebration and, in a fever dream, drifting away from reality itself. “Discotheque” also uses light imagery as a mean to show the boys’ expanding knowledge of the world, but it also starts with the possibility for aloneness. “So many reasons to be lonely on this night,” Orth pines. Though instead the boys are all in the discotheque together, “testing the light,” finding out how much they fit in, together and in the larger world, the world always moving around them.
As an album full of characters wandering, it’s a fittingly bleary-eyed set, though Academy Songs Volume One also conforms more to our first impressions of fragility and rattling structures in Holopaw’s sound more than it undermines them with further listening. The sonic palates themselves feel sometimes like they are incapable of finding their way. “We are the Virgin Snow” is an interesting expanse of sound, with cascading guitars and – per usual – fascinatingly labyrinthine drumming, but it also feels too wide open, too cut loose to be able to follow its structure. “Bedfellows Farewell” is spare and sweet, but while the finger-picked guitar is steady, the melodies feel more self-indulgent and drifting than exploratory. “Golden Years” is moody and dark, but feels forced to be, and in the end its heavy group vocals and spare chords bring an otherwise bracing middle of the record to a halt.
This all adds up to an ambitious record, the most thematically ambitious of Holopaw’s discography, but it’s a set that can’t quite live up to those lofty goals. Holopaw has long been an unsung hero in pop music, a band still waiting to get its due, and as such they are incapable of making a record that isn’t awfully compelling. Academy Songs Volume One is surely that, and sometimes brilliant, but it also pales in comparison to its more sure-footed predecessors.