The once-forgotten eponymous debut of Hawaii's These Trails is unerringly whimsical and often achingly beautiful.
I wonder sometimes if Hawaiian natives rue the day Portuguese immigrants brought the ukulele to their island state. Lord knows if it originated with any level of prestige, but as it now stands in the American imagination, the instrument is known as little more than an aesthetic tchotchke, as cheaply evocative of paradise as leis and strawberry daiquiris and just as disposable. Its dilettantish use by mainlanders belies a musical tradition that deserves better ambassadors than mawkish troubadours on subway platforms (there are, as with most such generalizations, some exceptions to this).
These Trails, the once-forgotten Honolulu folkies whose self-titled 1973 debut (and only release as a band) got a lovingly mastered re-release courtesy of Drag City this year, aren’t much interested in the ukulele, and that’s just as well. As Slant Magazine’s Jaymie Baxley noted in her review of Eddie Vedder’s misguided last solo venture,, the mini guitar is "only capable of producing about four distinctive sounds," making it unsuitable for These Trails’ fussy, sometimes achingly pretty lullabies (singer and guitarist Patrick Cockett would later take up the instrument for Taj Mahal's touring blues band).
The quaint affect that constitutes the ukulele’s current notoriety, though, marks These Trails in the instrument’s stead, and might be the one thing holding their music back from greatness. The late Margaret Morgan’s lilting soprano, at times mock-accented and childlike, produces that affect all on its own, which is to speak nothing of its regular collusion in two- and three-part harmonies with her male cohorts. No doubt that it’s all very skilled; to hear Morgan make the effortless octave jumps during the multi-pitch syllables of "Our House in Hanalei" is to hear a white woman who’s mastered the indigenous forms she loves. But that singular display of craftsmanship is mostly what These Trails is, and as such, a certain air of cultural remove permeates the project, even in the cutesier moments.
There are exceptions to this, usually also in moments, but in one case in an entire song. That song is "Hello Lou," and while I couldn’t quite tell you what it’s about, I could tell you that it caught me off guard with its dramatic beauty. Maybe its swells of theremin and mellotron will strike you as corny and cringingly unironic, but they send chills down my spine, and I’m no flower child myself.
Elsewhere, though, the album is unerringly whimsical. The subject matter is naturalistically focused, which is fitting enough, given both the primitive origins of its sound and the unparalleled comeliness of the Hawaiian landscape. It's much easier to sympathize with These Trails' starry-eyed tree-hugging than, say, the medievalist nostalgia of Amazing Blondel, Lindisfarne, and other pantalooned contemporaries in the "progressive" folk scene, but the pervasive naïveté still comes through loud and clear – even more so on Drag City’s impressive transfer – and whether it whisks you off to the romance of a simpler existence, or makes you roll your eyes in insurmountable indifference, may depend on anything as permanent as your personality, or as flighty as your current mood.
I’m tempted, then, to whittle my prognosis down to "dated," but that’s unfair: would there really be fewer listeners taking this seriously now than four decades ago? Escapism gains power the more powerful the need to escape, and while high school history might insist these feelings are felt collectively, I insist that even in the hardest of times, confrontation trumps evasion (how else to explain Woody Guthrie, "Ohio," and funk music?). The greener-pastures appeal of These Trails therefore limits it. Even the criminally-pigeonholed Fairport Convention had enough emotional depth to transcend its maypole-dancing first appearances, and its reasonable longevity can testify to that. These Trails, on the other hand, are basically charlatans. Lovable, extraordinarily-talented charlatans, but charlatans all the same, and had they survived past their debut album, they’d probably sit alongside the ukulele, justifiably or not, as one thing to most listeners: a whole lot of hippie bullshit.