[17 June 2014]
In 1992, Cracker’s wily frontman David Lowery posited “What the world needs now / Is another folk singer / Like I need a hole in my head” on “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)”. More than two decades later said genre is tired and overpopulated. With no sign of a drought of bands looking to ape the sound of what is considered modern folk music, do we need yet another British band enamored with acoustic instrumentation and bearing an obtuse name?
“Disregard what some might say / Time is a pleasure that’s mine to waste / Give me patience and show me grace / I am the king of the average pace”. When it comes to Brighton, UK’s House of Hats, any pretense is banished by “King of the Average Pace”, the third song on their debut LP, This Love. This proclamation of normalcy and the obvious harmonies that abound on the resolute This Love quickly endear House of Hats as a docent act in their chosen field. Aside from pretty vocals, it is the sharp duality of the This Love‘s songs that make that it a repeated listen. Tension and defiance underlay the album’s scarce instrumentation; the dark promises that reside in the creases of This Love are at once hopeful and also veiled threats. Never knowing which, House of Hats keep one guessing.
On first listen, “Close to Me” is a simple love song, yet upon further inspection the possibility of something more sinister appears: “No matter where you go I’m with you / No matter what the people say / I like it when you’re close to me / Not so far out.” Think “Every Breath You Take” by the Police. “Right Behind You”, sung by female vocalist Al-Anoud “Noddy” Al-Omran, is more straightforward in its approach: “My gaze is fixed on you / I’m right behind you / I’m right behind you / Until you feel the same way as I do.” No less powerful is the existential “No Man”, with Al-Omran wailing a tale of global solitude in the lines, “Voices haunt me but no one hears my call” and “An army of stars shine on me / But no one’s looking.”
Produced by Pete Smith (Sting, Joe Cocker, Sheryl Crow), House of Hats are in good hands. Smith leverages the vocal interplay between Al-Omran and Gigante to great extent, drawing both levity and gravity from the songs on This Love. The traded verses on standout ballad “Gold” showcase both the group’s restraint and power. The crystalline promise of the album’s opening title track as sung by Gigante is all but shattered in its elegiac closing reprise mournfully sung by Al-Omran. The band’s influences show on the piano hymn, “Home Is Where the Heart Is”, with its nod to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, with Al-Omran urging, “Rest assured you’re not alone / I’ve seen heartache like you’ve never have known / Wait and try to never shed a tear / Home is where the heart is and I am always near.” This mix of comfort and sorrow set House of Hats apart from their peers, yet they and Smith fall prey to the now-all-too-familiar bass thump on the lilting centerpiece “Joanne” that marks the album’s only shortcoming.
With cross-cutting vocal harmonies and menacing purity, This Love is a cohesive statement by a band that is a welcomed voice in a genre of acoustic clutter. As for the band’s name: it was derived from the band’s former house where they would hold wild parties. Ukelele player James Kuszewski remarked these events were reminiscent of the Mad Hatter’s tea parties from Alice in Wonderland. As a band that fails to take itself too seriously, the moniker is fitting a fitting one. It’s safe to say with This Love House of Hats have proven Lowery wrong.