Carving out a unique musical identity is harder than most musicians now seem to think. What’s even harder, though, is establishing one’s own musical identity the second time around. This is the problem facing Amy Klein, the singer/guitarist of Hilly Eye who used to play guitar and sing in Titus Andronicus. While Titus Andronicus is clearly the unrestrained artistic vision of Patrick Stickles, Klein had become popular enough to become as associated with the band’s image as her bearded bandmate. Thus, when Klein left the band in 2011, it seemed to some an attempt to shake off the image of Amy Andronicus and develop a new identity for herself. With Hilly Eye, Klein has more or less succeeded. However, while her first outing with her new band sets herself apart from her Andronicus persona, the impression given by Reasons to Live is that the band still haven’t quite figured out what they’re about.
Reasons to Live establishes itself quickly with the sludgy guitars and feedback of “Way Back When”, which derives a bit of sweetness via the vocal performances of Klein and drummer Catherine Tung. Throughout the album, Hilly Eye strive to capture the perfect mix of noise and melody, a goal that was achieved several times over throughout the 1990s. So no, Hilly Eye isn’t exactly the most innovative band going right now. Moreover, the album suffers from a case of poor mixing; too often, Klein and Tung’s vocals are buried at the bottom of the mix, giving more of an emphasis on feedback and overdrive. When Klein does rise above the din, as on “Jersey City”, it’s usually for a Kathleen Hanna-esque speak-sing moment that strives to be provocative but ends up far short. That particular song especially grates, with Klein’s repeated chant of “You think you’re so cool / You have an appetite for destruction” growing more unbearable each time it’s repeated.
Despite all of these things, Reasons to Live isn’t necessarily bad. A handful of tracks (“Amnesia”, “Louisville”) reveal solid melodies underneath the primal distortion, recalling some of the best moments that Kim Gordon contributed to Sonic Youth. Still, nothing really stands out or comes close to making a truly lasting impression, even on repeated listens. Everything on Reasons to Live feels like a demo, and not because of the lo-fi production quality; the songs here appear to be in a nebulous state, as if we’re hearing a rarities compilation full of outtakes for the real album. What was probably intended to be “simple” ends up being simplistic, and even the best ideas that Hilly Eye come up with only leave the listener wanting something more.
The half-formed state of Reasons to Live stands in stark contrast to the persona Klein has developed for herself online. For someone who appears to have an assured, focused viewpoint in her essays, she seems directionless when it comes to her music. Her lyrics strive to be meaningful and universal, but they end up sounding more generic than anything else. Coming from an artist as singular as Klein, Reasons to Live fails in one very frustrating way: it sounds like the kind of record that anyone could have made.