I don’t usually go in for pulling quotes for record reviews, but Holopaw’s Michael Johnson offers a priceless description of his band: “A queer, a Peruvian, a redneck, a burnout, and an asshole walk into a bar…” Besides my assumption that Tobi Echevarria is most likely to be the Peruvian, I don’t know who else is which. But only a few songs into their second Sub Pop release, Quit +/Or Fight, it’s clear that asshole or not, each is a purveyor of disarmingly unique folk-pop. It’s a record that asks you politely for the trendy “freak folk” label only to tear it to shreds with the cutest bear claws you ever did see.
It’s not that Holopaw doesn’t have freakish elements; for one, frontman John Orth sounds like he’s singing into an oscillating fan. But rather that trotting out its eccentricities for glory and brownie point cred, the band wears them close and plays them down. Let’s put it this way: Orth’s quaver is not a result of affected drama queendom, but his actual instrument. One minute he’s kicking out the quasi-jams on “3-shy-cubs” and the next he’s all high and girlie-style on the exquisite “Curious”. You’ll have to look to other reviews to find lyric analysis and subject matter discussion; I have no freaking idea what any of these songs are about after a month’s listening. But that fact does not diminish the experience. Like R.E.M.‘s vaunted Murmur, these songs are most adept at creating worlds for the listener to enter and engage, which may be different with every spin. It’s possible that some intense ear-to-speaker study sessions might eventually yield the stories of Quit, but I’m happy enough to listen to “Curious” upwards of seven times in a row. Orth’s fairy tale melody trips lightly over cello and woodwinds and I’m sold.
Similarly, opener “Losing Light” has a gentle insistence in its tone and rhythm that is instantly winning. When a band of five members, plus guest musicians, makes this quiet a sound, you know that every note they play should be planned an essential. And for the most part this holds true for Holopaw. There is no fat on Quit; the songs barely average three minutes in length, and only because the last track, “Ghosties” is pushing the epic five-minute mark. Most of the time, the songs blip by and trail away like smoke. Johnson’s urgent tom-work on “Losing Light” is barely enough to tether it to the firmament. Every other instrumental color, from vibes and keyboards to guitar, flutters around the beat in hypnotic patterns. It’s more of an elliptical snapshot of atmosphere than a traditional song, but it works for its own sake at the same time distinguishing itself from its Sub Pop peers. While the band’s debut had a distinct country edge to it, Quit has less identifiable touchstones. Johnson describes the evolution as “traditional elements becoming weirder and the weirder elements more traditional”, which makes sense. The instrumentation constantly plays against type, and the poppy song structures bob and weave with little predictability.
Apparently, according to several little birds, “Velveteen (All is bright.)” is about reindeer miscalculating their yearly flight and crashing into Lake Superior. I never barely guessed that if I hadn’t been tipped off, but the story is there under layers of fuzz bass and a very concerned Orth singing the word “peppermint” with a yearning usually reserved for the spouses of garlic lovers. But that tragic tale is told straight-faced and ends up oddly moving, another example of Holopaw’s ability to skew the familiar and make it somehow even more familiar, or at least just as welcome.