Now Hear This!: Hoops

The guitars ring with lo-fi charm and some would easily compare Hoops to the basement pop madness of Ariel Pink. This band has something to say and one of the catchiest albums of the year.



Label: Fat Possum
Release Date: 2017-05-05

The digital revolution caught some musicians by surprise. In the '60s and '70s, owning instruments, much less booking studio time, was very much cost-prohibitive, meaning some amateur songwriters were left with little more than a hobby, not so much a profession. Nowadays, someone can get a studio sheen on everything from vocals to instrumentation without having to exit out of their laptops, leading to profoundly untalented acts like gnash scoring actual Top 10 hits in this day and age.

Yet the indie rock revolution of the early '90s did something truly groundbreaking: tape hiss, lo-fi equipment, and distorted ideas could be just as essential to the shape of a song as something with airless polish. That is why Guided By Voices, Pavement, and a litany of Merge Records artists still get talked about to this day, some even bravely standing by their basement-recorded works like the essential form of their sound. In fact, without this aesthetic, artists like Ariel Pink wouldn't still have careers as we know it today.

So when Drew Auscherman started Hoops as an ambient solo project, little did he know that this his project would soon blossom into a full-bore four-person band, his knack for instrumentals soon leading towards lo-fi pop songs that, even with some grit on the finished product, are still chock full of hooks that will get stuck in your head for the rest of the day.

Yes, Routines, the band's debut album, may very well be the catchiest pop album you'll hear all year but its chiming guitars, keyboard trills, and sighing vocals wouldn't be anything were it not for the fact that "The Way Luv Is" and "All My Life" are built around such song chord structures, the whole album feeling like a water-warped cassette tape of pop hits recorded off of AM radio in the late '70s. Yeah, it gives you those kinda vibes. This is a good thing.

The current active members of the band -- Auscherman, Keagan Beresford, and Kevin Krauter -- recently sat down with PopMatters to discuss what it would mean to add that studio sheen (if ever), what it was like to (basically) record an album twice, and their distinct lo-fi influences.

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Hearing your debut album draws a lot of questions: from it's lo-fi-but-rich production to its clear sense of pop melodicism, one can hear this and immediately think this is a solo project, not the work of a four-piece band. Was keeping that "aesthetic" essential to Hoops' sound?

Beresford: We did deliberately try to make the album at least a little uniform because the songs all sounded quite different from one another in their early forms. That was probably the most labor-intensive part of making the record; finding a general vibe and mixing each song to fit. Like similar vocal effects, guitar tones and whatnot.

Moreover, early press releases indicate that a strong inspiration was Oneohtrix Point Never, which is fascinating given that Routines ends up giving off a lot of early (but refined) Ariel Pink vibes. What other inspirations would you cite towards the sounds that invigorated the band?

Auscherman: The earliest recordings I did under the name Hoops were strictly ambient and sounded way more like Oneohtrix Point Never. When I made the change from ambient to full-band pop, I was heavily inspired by all sorts of pop music. Ariel Pink was an inspiration for sure, and with Routines our demos were heavily inspired by the band the Radio Dept. That band heavily influenced the way we mixed the album. We are all also in love with Prefab Sprout. They write perfect pop music.

Although the aesthetic for Routines is defiantly and gloriously lo-fi, the mixing and leveling here is key, as this album, for its home-spun charm, no doubt had a lot of effort go into those soundboard decisions. What were some of the largest challenges you had in getting Routines' sound?

Beresford: Routines was our first attempt at recording in a proper studio (Thump Recording in Brooklyn to be specific), so it was a challenge to take the high-quality unmixed songs from that setting and remake them into the album we wanted. We ended up re-doing parts of songs and sometimes literally the entire thing, so it ended up feeling like we made the album twice. Just mixing took more time than actually recording the instruments; like we would work on something for hours and then hit a wall and have to start from scratch. It just stretched out the whole process of making the album across half a year. We're pretty happy with the way it came out though, so it was a labor of love.

Lyrically, the album has many themes involving distrust and uncertainty, specifically in looking at the metaphors on "Management" and even "Underwater Theme". If there was a lyrical conceit to this record, what would it be?

Beresford: I think there is a lyrical conceit to the album, but it was deliberate for sure. A lot of the subject matter has to do with dialogues we’ve had with other people and within ourselves dealing with our own personal shortcomings and conflicts in relationships, a lot of it because of the drastic lifestyle change that came with doing this band full time. It may seem bogus and self-referential to make an album about how being in a group affects your life, but that’s what was on our respective minds when we were making Routines.

In touring and even going forward, would a more polished studio sound be of any interest or, like Guided By Voice's Do the Collapse, would the result diminish the sound?

Beresford: I think trying something a little more polished is kind of inevitable, if only for the sake of keeping things interesting with making consecutive albums. Low or "medium-fi" music has its charms, which has been a large part of our identity as far as recordings go, but we all love to listen to higher fidelity stuff as well, and the prospect of refining it a bit more is exciting to me.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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