[4 August 2013]
Portland’s Houndstooth play a dreamy-but-muscular form of spaced-out shoegaze that will appeal to fans of bands like Cowboy Junkies, Mazzy Star and Speck Mountain. Vocals, courtesy of Katie Bernstein, are languid but compelling, guitars are wavery, and the band’s tightness is belied by the fact that they always sound as if they’re about to collapse in a narcotic haze. In other words, it’s great stuff, but probably something you should avoid listening to while operating heavy machinery. Or any machinery at all, really.
Opener “Thunder Runner” sets the template, all swooping basslines and gently jangling guitars, while follow-up “Baltimore” mines a similarly dreamy vein, albeit with a livelier tempo. But it’s the third song and first single “Canary Island” that really blows the album open. Imagine a morphine-inflected version of Neil Young’s “Down By the River” and you’re on the right track, but it would be a mistake to overstate the band’s influences in terms of any one performer or musician. There’s plenty in the stew here—the nimble guitar accents, the gently propulsive rhythm, the shimmering organ, and of course those seductively hypnotic vocals—and it all burbles together into something tasty and unique. This is a song, and a band, that will remind you in flashes of a dozen other bands, but ends up being its own distinct organism.
“Canary Island” is an early highlight and a standout track, but it’s hardly the only memorable song here. The band reels off a string of tunes that tap into a similar stoner-with-a-purpose mood: the thrumming midtempo number of “Strangers” is a sort of somnambulent power-pop—something like Elastica would have sounded after downing a couple bottles of cough syrup—while “New Illusion” employs a swinging rhythm and swoopy-slidey vocals to good effect. Killer slide guitar, too.
Not every tune knocks it out of the park, of course, and the back half of the album drops off quite a bit in terms of intensity. Every song is in the three-to-five-minute range, so there are no extended jams here, though one gets the feeling that this band is more than capable of getting up a head of steam. There are a couple of throwaways, like the dopey “Don’t Know You” and the pleasant but unmemorable “Wheels On Fire”, which seem present more to fill out the album than for any compelling musical reason. Album closer “You Won’t See Me” is an unfortunately lackluster offering, one of the more tepid tracks on a record which deserves to go out more strongly than it does.
However, such reservations need to be taken in context of an album that is a very strong effort overall. Any number of Houndstooth’s weaker songs would still stack up against many bands’ strongest. This is an outfit that plays with supreme confidence, but not cockiness, one whose songwriting chops and flair for melody match (or maybe even outstrip) their considerable technical ability.
Houndstooth is a band worth exploring, especially for fans of rock that occupies the mellower end of the spectrum without slopping over into Eagles-style lite rock lameness. There’s been a lot of good music out of Portland in the past few years. Here’s some more.