Upon first listen to Holopaw‘s self-titled debut, two things immediately pop to mind: country-folk and singer-songwriter. While the first thought may be near mark, the second, my friends, is dead wrong. Although Holopaw sounds like a one-man show, it is actually the work of five men from Gainesville, Florida. And man, do these men, armed with various stringed instruments, synths and subtle electronic sounds, know how to make a good I’m-depressed-so-I-need-to-listen-to-something-depressing album.
Off Sub Pop, Holopaw is a wistful and subtle piece of work, the kind of album you’d plop on the stereo when it’s raining and you’re reading, the type of record you’d listen to while lying in bed after a tough break-up. It’s short (clocking in at just over 31 minutes) and it’s sad (with lonely and lovely lyrics). The thing is, when you listen to the record, you’ve got to be in the right mood and doing the right thing, like painting or something, or it just won’t work. It’s just that sort of album. That’s not to say that Holopaw isn’t good, because it is—it’s ethereal and earthy—but it’s definitely not a record to listen to while you’re, say, cleaning your house or on a road trip.
With that said, the band was brought to the attention of Sub Pop via Isaac Brock, who contributes vocals and mandolin to the record. Rumor has it that Brock wanted to start his own label to release Holopaw, but because he’s such a busy man (with all the fronting Modest Mouse stuff), he passed the opportunity over to Sub Pop, a label that wanted to expand on the sound established last year by Iron and Wine (aka Samuel Beam).
Taking its name from a sleepy town in Central Florida, Holopaw, in Native American, means “a place where something is hauled”. The name appropriately sets up the backwoods, one-with-nature feel of the band; when listening to this debut, you can imagine the quintet sitting on a porch near cornfields, drinking, singing and playing under the moonlight and a gas lamp on a lovely summer night. The cover art, featuring what looks to be a 50-year-old boy (no kidding, it’s kind of freaky really), is simple, and drawings of clouds, some birds, and a couple of forest animals sprinkle the booklet. All this is plain and minimal, mimicking the ease of Holopaw’s music.
At first play, the tracks sound very bare and straightforward, but after repeated turns, the complexity of the songs come to fore—the steel pedal, guitar, and simple percussion, accompanied by tape loops and various hums and buzzes. The nakedness of the music can be contributed to vocalist John Orth (who collaborated with Brock in the equally folky Ugly Casanova). Orth fronts the quintet and his twangy voice nicely translates the longing and solitude embedded in the songs. His warble is powerful yet fragile, openly sharing his pain and hurt. This strength is most evident on album-opener “Abraham Lincoln” and on “Teacup Woozy”, where Orth’s voice floats over slight electro glitches, hums, and simple geetar. “Hoover” and “Hula-la”, two of the record’s strongest and therefore most melancholic tracks, showcase Orth’s ability to convey sadness and feeling without sounding like a cry baby.
Because Holopaw is such an emotion-driven record, it’s difficult to take a good, hard listen to the words. But a look at the liner notes reveals that Orth is unsurprisingly singing about nature, with lyrics that aren’t entirely understandable, like “Canaries light on corncob pipes and would not look so bright if not so cold” (what the hell does that mean?) from “Took It for a Twinkle”. But with a record like this, the words don’t really matter.
Overall, this debut, which invokes such intense feelings, has the power to calm you when there’s a storm brewing outside, and Orth, whose voice is so sad, is strong enough to calm you when there’s a storm brewing inside.