We can go where we want, we can do what we like, we are free now.
—“Deep Dive”, Houseguest
You have a Houseguest in your town right now. Every town has a Houseguest. A band with a reputation built on its live show antics. Too often, however, those bands achieve local acclaim only to flame-out in a high-drama implosion.
Houseguest is Akron, Ohio’s band du jour. Deservedly so. But what adds weight to the hope that they will get over that local hump is their journey so far. In their five years together they have already lost a close friend, busted up the band and reformed, and grabbed a Northeast Ohio super-group label of sorts for their roster’s pedigree. Now, they have overcome the novelty of their live show reputation (where the band and half the audience often seem to end up on stage and in various stages of undress) and released their first full-length release on the Audio Eagle label, founded by old friend and Black Key Patrick Carney. And while the abandon of their stage presence is something to behold, what they are capable of committing in the studio is staggeringly beautiful, skewed pop.
Recorded in Carney’s basement studio, High Strangeness is a collection of idiosyncratic post-punk pop confections. A passing glance at the track listing—“On Walden Software”, “It’s Not You (But That’s Just Me)”, “Heliport Impressions”, and “Galapaghost Island”—suggests you might be in for a comedic band, à la Barenaked Ladies. But Houseguest is only tangentially jokey and certainly more informed, more along the lines of They Might Be Giants. Their quirky pop sensibilities are a by-product of their craft, but do not define who they are.
Opening on the strength of the two-minute brilliance of “Fashionable Living Room”, Houseguest makes it clear that they have mastered the hook. Bouncing along with a simple guitar lead-in married to hand-clap percussion, the song’s start-stop tempo begs for movement. “Gone for the Season” mixes the double-guitar work of the Two Daves (Dave Whited and Dave Rich) with the smart, syncopated lyrical delivery of Ted Mallison. Houseguest’s self-proclaimed “everyman anthem” hints musically at the Who, but lyrically screams of vintage David Byrne and Black Francis. “Deep Dive” puts the workaday life up against a sea motif—and it works. Clocking in at three minutes, it’s a typical bit of measured precision that should now be expected of the quintet.
Houseguest only misses the mark a handful of times on this 14-track disc. The middle third of the album suffers from a running order that alternates between some of the group’s best work and cuts that fail to live up to their album mates. After five perfect confections, “Are We Us?” takes the listener out of the album’s groove with a blatant (and, frankly, beneath them) BNL feel. “Galapaghost Island” and “Silvereye” have the misfortune of sandwiching one of the best guitar-pop songs captured for posterity, “Muted Mesa”. And “Gravy Shift”, despite its groovy guitar work, just feels slightly off. It could just be that these tracks butt up against some of the strongest songs on the disc.
Where the rest of the album tracks barely scrape the three-minute mark, “Muted Mesa” proves the band can sustain their work over four-and-a-half minutes and not sacrifice their sense of urgency or craftsmanship. Mallison’s baritone is reminiscent of Bob Mould circa Workbook, and this is most clear on the brilliant “Muted Mesa”. After a bit of a revolving chair behind the drum kit, Steve Clements has settled in and blends nicely with Gabe Schray’s bass. The guitars shove forward while Mallison’s vocals soar without sacrificing genuine emotion. Possibly the best single of 2006.
The dazzling but brief “On Walden Software” and beautiful “Heliport Impressions” showcase the band’s twisted view. The bouncing guitars throughout the minute-and-a-half glory of “On Walden Software” offset the eccentric lyrics (“And I cannot believe you had the guts / To steal my Popsicle!”). Slow-building and somber, “Heliport Impressions” provides a window into a final parting (at the heliport!).
Unlike their first impression, Houseguest has the legs to be more than just another legendary local band, and is nothing like a joke band. High Strangeness deserves to be heard, and if their association with their old Black Keys schoolmate gets their foot in the door, more power to them. But once inside, there’s going to be a party. A quirky, geek-rock, raucous party. So go ahead, cut loose and loose your shirt, and have some fun! Lord knows Houseguest is!