You hear it right away in the opening strains of the lead track, “Music Becomes Vibration”. A buzzing hum rises in your headphones, then an organ track of distinctly retro sound, backed by a plaintive trumpet, and then in seconds it’s full of reverbing guitars, quietly rhythmic fuzz bass, and low-key drums. It’s the new incarnation of the Witch Hazel Sound, masters of retro revival indie pop. As singer Mark F. croons in his sweetly mellow voice, “We’re bringing it to you / More songs for you to choose / It’s ringing in our ears / The sound of the year”.
And ring it does. “Music Becomes Vibration” is the perfect introduction song to the Witch Hazel Sound. Lyrically, it’s a lightweight excursion through the metanarrative of songcraft, describing the recording and mixing process as it’s optimized for headphones and tones are rounded off. But musically it’s a syrupy slice of psychedelia, thick and hazy like an acid summer’s day. The sounds swirl in a distinct amalgamation of sounds from late Beach Boys to seventies AM radio, equal parts Wilson and Bacharach. And this, in a nutshell, is what the Witch Hazel Sound are all about.
Hailing from the Kent, Ohio pop scene, the Witch Hazel Sound have been creating musical excursions backward through time since 1992. But, nearly a decade later, we are just now seeing the band come into their own. Their previous two LPs, Landlocked and It’s All True, were well-received by critics and fans still enamored of the classic pop sound, but even then they were more strictly derivative of their influences, particularly the heavy hand of Brian Wilson. Instead of being a glaring fault, the Witch Hazel Sound had enough skill and songcraft that, even dripping in Beach Boys references, they were able to charm and delight.
However, with This World, Then the Fireworks…, the Witch Hazel Sound have finally settled into their own groove. Their first album for maven-of-pop-masterpieces label Hidden Agenda, the collective group has finally found a way to merge its core influences with its own interests. Rather than emulate, the Witch Hazel Sound finally percolates.
Their style demands it. While “Fireworks” might be able to slip by the power pop crowd with a few winks towards Andy Partridge, songs like “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her” would be hard to get away with for most other acts. Yet the song, with it’s soaring late ‘60s/early ‘70s keys (dig the vibraphone!) and muted horns, hints at the schmaltzy side of pop without wallowing in it. Think of it as homage, think of it as retro, or simply recognize that the song reveals the mellowest of grooves that is pop heritage, it still never floats away on a river of cheese. And it’s to the band’s credit that they can jump straight from this airy track into the straight guitar pop of “Fireworks” and continue on with “Blue City”, which revives the airy feeling of “2 or 3 Things…” and marries it to the shoegazer beauty of the Ocean Blue.
Although laid back, and almost terminally mellow, there’s something undeniably cool about the Witch Hazel Sound. It’s lounge pop, maybe, or paisley smile music at its least threatening, but it’s also an eternal sound, a piece of the Great American Songbook readily overlooked by those who like their music to have a stark, grainy realism. And yet, it’s contemporary as well. Although it certainly won’t appeal to all ears, it would be hard to deny that the music of the Witch Hazel Sound isn’t beautiful. Even on the most stripped-down tracks, Mark F., Kevin Coral, Mike Split, and Jason Richardson reveal a lush, gorgeous sense of melody and constantly startle the listener with their ability to unfurl and display these melodies in the simplest-seeming of songs.
If there’s one thing that keeps This World, Then the Fireworks… from being a perfect album in the pop canon, it’s that the brief instrumental interludes speckled throughout the album are let-downs. “Providence”, which is just Richardson playing an organ and a vibraphone, sounds like a calliope introduction to the next track rather than its own piece. On “The Guild of Splinters”, Coral and F. play with moogy keyboards and hummed vocals to a light, spacey effect, but it never resolves itself as anything more than filler. The final cut, “The Boy with Green Hair”, is Coral and Richardson playing a bare-bones jazz outro that shows off Richardson’s excellent trumpeting, but given the rest of the disc airiness, it’s almost too earthy an ending. For any other album, these pieces would work of their own accord, but when they interject their way into a collection of pure pop gems, they act as a distraction.
When all is said and done, these are minor quibbles. Regardless of the stop-start effect of these short breaks, This World, Then the Fireworks… is a brilliant disc that reestablishes the Witch Hazel Sound as among the very best that underground pop, especially of the light psychedelic variety, has to offer. The London Telegraph named 1998’s It’s All True one of the “Five Essential Albums from America’s Psychedelic Subculture.” Just wait ‘till they get their hands on this one. As prophesied by “Music Becomes Vibration”, I’m sure the Witch Hazel Sound will remain ringing in their ears.