A Hound at the Hem is a pop record that completely forgets it’s a pop record.
Toronto’s Slim Twig – the alias for Max Turnbull – is a bit of a triple threat. For one, he is an actor, probably best known for playing Billy Zero in the 2007 Canadian independent film The Tracey Fragments, which starred Ellen Page. He is also a music producer – he helmed the recent release, GEM, by his wife Megan Remy, who records under the moniker U.S. Girls. He is also a recording artist under his own right, signed to Toronto’s Paper Bag Records. However, his latest release A Hound at the Hem is being released independently on his own label, Calico Corp. (with the backing of Toronto indie label Pleasence Records), and probably for the reason that, I’m sad to say, it’s not very good. But I’m getting ahead of myself. A Hound at the Hem is an album that’s been gestating for some time. Twig started recording it in the fall of 2010, but wound up shelving it so he could work on his sophomore Paper Bag release, which came out in August 2012, called Sof’ Sike. The reason? According to an article on the CBC Music Web site, it wasn’t very good. Or, at least, not the product that Twig envisioned. The man himself has said on the CBC Web site about the record that: “I've been portrayed as someone so far outside the pop idiom that I wanted to prove that I was capable of writing songs that wouldn't sound too out of place in a DJ set following a Rolling Stones' song. When it [A Hound at the Hem] was finished, I stood back, got some feedback, and people were saying this isn't a pop record at all, so I always thought my intention wasn't complete.”
At least if there’s anything going for A Hound at the Hem, it is that it is a bit of a concept record. It is based on Serge Gainsbourg's 1971 album Histoire de Melody Nelson, which in turn is based off Vladimir Nabokov’s celebrated ‘50s novel Lolita – another direct influence on A Hound at the Hem as well. And its maker certainly thinks a lot of it. Twig wrote on his Web site that A Hound at the Hem is his "finest (and certainly densest) musical achievement to date." The thing is, you wouldn’t know that this is a great record, nor a concept record, just by listening to it. The problem? A lackluster voice. Every time that Slim Twig opens his mouth, it sounds as though David Bowie was being strangled by a rusty piece of piano wire by Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. Or, worse yet, someone is singing with, as “Weird Al” Yankovic once put it, marbles in his mouth. Slim Twig, as a vocalist, is completely off putting, and this severely cripples one’s enjoyment of A Hound at the Hem. Another thing that really works against the album is that it has been described as being on the “hard psych” side, if not the slightly psychedelic, and almost impenetrably so with its creaking organs and shifting musical landscapes.
It’s hard for me to admit this, because there’s obviously a fair bit of work that went into this recorded statement, one that boasts a bevy of Toronto-area guest musicians ranging from his main squeeze, Remy, to Carl Didur, Tim Westberg and none other than current indie rock It boy Owen Pallett, who contributes strings here with the backing of the St. Kitts string quartet, who had worked with Pallett on his first couple of records as Final Fantasy. The thing is that A Hound at the Hem is a pop record that completely forgets it’s a pop record, as its creator acknowledges. As something that might have been scored for a zombie movie, the LP is abrasive and full of dark corners, making it a bit of a tough listen. It’s not completely out in left field, and there are admittedly a few pop moments, such as on second track “Clerical Collar”, which successfully has a sense of swagger and bravado and is the album’s one clear pop moment – at least, until Twig starts singing like he’s got not just one, but both feet in the grave. However, the thing, the record, is a messy amalgam of ‘70s glam rock poseurings with the creaky influence of psychedelia, which gets particularly abrasive on final track “Blonde Ascending (Come Into the Clatter)”, which sounds like something Boris Karloff recited with a backing of an assortment of ghoulies playing something of a baroque film score. It’s odd that the album has been released the week after Halloween, as it’s something that you could have played outside of your home on that night of trick or treating to scare the kiddies away from your door.
Granted, the album isn’t a total washout, and that’s largely due to the presence of Pallett, who at least sounds as though he’s doing more than turning in a favor here. His strings swoop and drip with psychic dread on opening track “Heavy Splendor” and there are little hints sprinkled throughout the album that signal his ability to transcend the somewhat abstract nature of the material. However, such moments are a little bit few and far between, and as an overall piece, A Hound at the Hem is a bit hard to take. The album’s big failure is in clarifying its concept: if it’s based on Lolita, there doesn’t seem to be much here that suggests that the album’s overarching theme is pedophilia, or at least love as a negative force. That’s largely due to the fact that it often hard to decipher what Twig is saying exactly, with his enunciation being slurred to the point you have to almost wonder if he was under the influence of drink or other substances while making it. As a total whole, A Hound at the Hem is a disappointing statement from a guy who clearly has some measure of talent, and has a lot to call for on his résumé. If he had handed over singing duties to someone else, his wife perhaps, A Hound at the Hem might have been at least an interesting experimental album. As it stands, this is something that should have stayed in the vaults, largely, and is pretty much only for anyone out there who is a Slim Twig completist.