From well-respected pioneers with certain places in history (The Everly Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel) to well-liked, commercially thriving artists (The Carpenters, Sonny & Cher) to the, well… just plain inexplicable (Air Supply, or the Captain and Tennille, anyone?), there has long been a significant amount of attention paid to musical duos. Something about the collaboration between creative and kindred spirits appeals to audiences, giving them a sense of the interconnectedness possible between two souls. Oftentimes, (especially in the case of the first two acts mentioned) because of the minimalism of their personnel and simplicity of their arrangement, these artists are able to strip away the louder, more raucous musical elements intrinsically associated with rock music and focus their sound on the subtle beauty that can be achieved through truly utilizing the nuances in harmony and texture.
Folk group Storyhill (comprised of Chris Cunningham and John Hermanson) understand and celebrate the capacity of duos who labor toward such ends. The pair, originally from Bozeman, Montana, have been friends since adolescence and recording together, under one name or another, since 1989. Their musical and personal familiarity is underscored by the ease with which their voices blend to create harmonies that are often mesmerizing and transcendent. Marrying a warm, relaxed vibe with a propensity for writing pleasing melodies, the group seems a throwback to the gentle, acoustic pop sounds of artists from the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Fittingly, Storyhill’s previous effort, 2005’s Duotones: A Tribute to Duos of the ‘70s, found the pair covering tracks by some of that decade’s most notable two-somes, including Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young and Stephen Stills, Steely Dan, Loggins & Messina, and Hall & Oates, and the influence of these and other artists from that period is clear in the work of Storyhill.
On their 13th album and first with Red House Records, Cunningham and Hermanson enlisted the production aid of Dan Wilson, frontman of the underappreciated Semisonic and Grammy-winning collaborator du jour, who has displayed versatility in his recent work writing and producing on albums by Dixie Chicks, Mike Doughty, and others. Wilson and several contributing musicians, including Eric Fawcett (N.E.R.D., Doughty, Spymob) and Jacob Slichter (Semisonic), add restrained-yet-effective instrumental touches to the group’s serene dynamic. The creative tension between the influences of folk and pop groups from decades past on the band and Wilson’s subtly progressive touch results in a sound that equates to a breath of fresh air. The group does not blindly embrace the doctrine of their influences, yet does not ignore the cultural remnants of their success in search of modernity.
Cunningham and Hermanson’s serious vocal talents are both the primary focus and most compelling feature of the album. Within the first minute of opening track “Give Up the Ghost”, the pair’s harmonies are on glorious display and only the most detached listener could keep from being absorbed by the richness contained in the tones used to propel the lyrics “It’s just the humming of the highway / Don’t know where you’re running to, don’t know how to help you / Storm is coming, find your way back to the shore / I’ve loved before, loved you the most, give up the ghost”. In lesser hands, such sentiments might seem pedestrian or mawkish, but here they come across as a compassionate, genuine appeal. “Give Up the Ghost” simply has the distinction of being the first in a succession of songs with harmonies that aptly serve that individual song’s theme and feel. Whether softly and simply conveying romantic wonder (“Highlight”), or giving buoyancy to an upbeat tale of encouragement (“Love Will Find You”), Storyhill uses their vocal accord to both weave and embellish tales of all types to great effect.
What unfortunately keeps the record from achieving glory comparable to that of its influential predecessors is the inconsistent level of quality as relates to songwriting. While there are several excellent tracks featured, the majority of memorable songs are relegated to the album’s second half, allowing for momentary lulls and letdowns. In addition to the radiance of opener “Give up the Ghost”, Storyhill hits an undeniable stride on tracks six through nine. The aforementioned “Love Will Find You”, “Fallen”, “Sacramento”, and “Happy Man” are among the record’s best moments, and sequenced together form a powerful grouping hard for the remainder of the album to compare to.
Additionally, Cunningham and Hermanson’s vocal prowess covers over an unnecessary amount of awkward lyrical phrasing and the occasional bent toward being overly saccharine. For all its praiseworthy qualities, “Give Up the Ghost” includes passages that force lines like “Can you hear me now? / You’re cuttin’ in and out” and “I haven’t seen you in a while / We could hook up somewhere later on” that, even in context, seem clumsy. “For a Song” and “Room in My Heart”, as sweet-natured as they may be, push the envelope in the sentimentality category. A listener’s opinion of the latter, for example, might depend on their ability to digest statements like “There was a time I’d do anything for you, if your roses went blue I made them red. / It’s not that they’re dead but those flowers don’t bloom. It’s just empty ones, instead. / You should know wherever you go, if you’re lost in the crowd or you’re happy alone / You have my attention whatever I can do / There will always be room in my heart for you”. However, it should be noted that despite the presence of these and other minor missteps, the album is worth investigating if for no other reason than to soak up the already alluded to vocal excellence.
Though they have achieved a definite measure of success and have inspired a devoted following, Storyhill has not historically been a group for the masses, and barring a reversal of industry trends, they likely never will be. This album’s eleven tracks do not provide enough evidence to suggest it can convert a legion of new fans not previously disposed to enjoying gentler, acoustic folk/pop textures. However, those who appreciate magnificent vocal harmonies and/or are looking to be reminded of the purest elements of music in a fresh context will likely be well satisfied by Cunningham and Hermanson’s abilities to bring such elements to the forefront of their work.