Back in the early 2000s, when I worked at a record store, things like scan-the-barcode listening stations weren’t the most common. Music magazines, radio, and word-of-mouth remained some of the most powerful ways for people to learn of new songs outside of file-sharing or getting whatever music was available from the relatively-newfangled thing called “iTunes”.
Smaller record labels would sometimes push new bands by putting “RIYL (Recommended if You Like)” stickers across every album. Like insisting that Victory Records’ latest release by synth-friendly rock band Action Action would appeal to Depeche Mode and the Cure fans. Some of these recommendations were tenuous at best, but it might be enough to push indiscriminate music fans from dropping $12.99 on a record in the hope of some new, good music.
Two decades later, the Austin-based acoustic indie duo known as Hovvdy are making some distinctive, stylistic inroads. I was a big fan of their 2018 album Cranberry, with its to-the-point emotional chord changes and beautifully interlaced vocal harmonies. To this day, your friendly neighborhood PopMatters editors get hundreds of press releases and promos every week, and I have seen the same kind of tactics used back in the brick-and-mortar CD days: “Rising indie superstars you must cover! RIYL…” etc. Sometimes these “comparable band” markers are helpful towards pointing out what specific sound a group is aiming for, and other times, no, your new artist does not sound like Björk crossed with Billie Eilish or TikTok’s answer to Blink-182.
Yet, for whatever reason, I keep seeing these “RIYL” emails reference Hovvdy. The moniker of Charlie Martin and Will Taylor is apparently a brand in and of itself, which is a bit head-scratching because as lovely as their sound is, it feels like their stripped-down update of Built to Spill and early Death Cab for Cutie hasn’t made the most populous inroads. That’s even more curious given that their third record, 2019’s Heavy Lifter, was a massive disappointment as the boys’ tampered down the power of their vocal interplay to create an album that lacked the life that made Cranberry so oddly compelling. Surprisingly, they almost apologized for this by releasing that album’s bare-bones demos as a streaming release, and unsurprisingly, many of those productions were much more satisfying.)
The press release for True Love, Hovvdy’s fourth full-length, indicates that this collection of songs feels like “a return to form”, and I couldn’t agree more. From the shining guitars and vocal wail that opens the title track, True Love shows Hovvdy back in that deep harmony pocket, with those multi-tracked vocals giving the duo that distinct flavor that kicks their emotion into overdrive. The light touches of keyboards and studio effects add to the song’s pillowy atmosphere but never overwhelms. While their series of Covers EPs has shown them try all sorts of studio experiments and full-band setups, True Love cements the Hovvdy formula: upfront acoustic guitars, a light trap kit, and lovingly expressive vocal lines.
True Love feels like they learned some of the best lessons from the Heavy Lifter sessions and applied them to their existing aesthetic. “GSM”, the album’s unquestioned highlight, uses a simple piano melody to build out a pointed tale of close bonding. “I’m sorry if I woke you up / With my breathing / I was wheezing” is a great line. The emotions of a “hard and soft” familial relationship are not always easily resolved or articulated. There’s a longing to Hovvdy’s lyrics that can sometimes only be described as “indirect”, but therein lies the charm: the meaning is so much easier to internalize and personalize.
Hovvdy’s strength lies in their ability to sell an emotion even when the lyrics aren’t always the most poetic. “I love you so much” is such a basic sentiment, but on “Lake June”, its quiet repetition feels unspeakably earnest. True Love is the best kind of mid-career album for a band like Hovvdy to make, as it sounds like the boldest articulation of their sound while also pushing into new directions. The overlapping vocal layers of the studio experiment “Hope”, for example, very much feels like the boys are trying their best Alex G impression. Still, against all odds, this bold experiment works.
By the time we hear the line about how our narrator is “ego broken or starting to bend” during “Junior Day League”, it’s clear that Hovvdy is having fun with their songwriting in a way that felt stilted and cold during Heavy Lifter. Ultimately, True Love is “Recommended If You Like” quiet contemplation, night drives with a great soundtrack, and an album you’ll want to revisit time and time again.