Storyhill: Storyhill

Aarik Danielsen

Cunningham and Hermanson's harmonies are on glorious display, and only the most detached listener could keep from being absorbed by the richness contained in the tones.



Label: Red House
US Release Date: 2007-02-13
UK Release Date: 2007-04-09

From well-respected pioneers with certain places in history (The Everly Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel) to well-liked, commercially thriving artists (The Carpenters, Sonny & Cher) to the, well… just plain inexplicable (Air Supply, or the Captain and Tennille, anyone?), there has long been a significant amount of attention paid to musical duos. Something about the collaboration between creative and kindred spirits appeals to audiences, giving them a sense of the interconnectedness possible between two souls. Oftentimes, (especially in the case of the first two acts mentioned) because of the minimalism of their personnel and simplicity of their arrangement, these artists are able to strip away the louder, more raucous musical elements intrinsically associated with rock music and focus their sound on the subtle beauty that can be achieved through truly utilizing the nuances in harmony and texture.

Folk group Storyhill (comprised of Chris Cunningham and John Hermanson) understand and celebrate the capacity of duos who labor toward such ends. The pair, originally from Bozeman, Montana, have been friends since adolescence and recording together, under one name or another, since 1989. Their musical and personal familiarity is underscored by the ease with which their voices blend to create harmonies that are often mesmerizing and transcendent. Marrying a warm, relaxed vibe with a propensity for writing pleasing melodies, the group seems a throwback to the gentle, acoustic pop sounds of artists from the late '60s and '70s. Fittingly, Storyhill's previous effort, 2005's Duotones: A Tribute to Duos of the '70s, found the pair covering tracks by some of that decade's most notable two-somes, including Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young and Stephen Stills, Steely Dan, Loggins & Messina, and Hall & Oates, and the influence of these and other artists from that period is clear in the work of Storyhill.

On their 13th album and first with Red House Records, Cunningham and Hermanson enlisted the production aid of Dan Wilson, frontman of the underappreciated Semisonic and Grammy-winning collaborator du jour, who has displayed versatility in his recent work writing and producing on albums by Dixie Chicks, Mike Doughty, and others. Wilson and several contributing musicians, including Eric Fawcett (N.E.R.D., Doughty, Spymob) and Jacob Slichter (Semisonic), add restrained-yet-effective instrumental touches to the group's serene dynamic. The creative tension between the influences of folk and pop groups from decades past on the band and Wilson's subtly progressive touch results in a sound that equates to a breath of fresh air. The group does not blindly embrace the doctrine of their influences, yet does not ignore the cultural remnants of their success in search of modernity.

Cunningham and Hermanson's serious vocal talents are both the primary focus and most compelling feature of the album. Within the first minute of opening track "Give Up the Ghost", the pair's harmonies are on glorious display and only the most detached listener could keep from being absorbed by the richness contained in the tones used to propel the lyrics "It's just the humming of the highway / Don't know where you're running to, don't know how to help you / Storm is coming, find your way back to the shore / I've loved before, loved you the most, give up the ghost". In lesser hands, such sentiments might seem pedestrian or mawkish, but here they come across as a compassionate, genuine appeal. "Give Up the Ghost" simply has the distinction of being the first in a succession of songs with harmonies that aptly serve that individual song's theme and feel. Whether softly and simply conveying romantic wonder ("Highlight"), or giving buoyancy to an upbeat tale of encouragement ("Love Will Find You"), Storyhill uses their vocal accord to both weave and embellish tales of all types to great effect.

What unfortunately keeps the record from achieving glory comparable to that of its influential predecessors is the inconsistent level of quality as relates to songwriting. While there are several excellent tracks featured, the majority of memorable songs are relegated to the album's second half, allowing for momentary lulls and letdowns. In addition to the radiance of opener "Give up the Ghost", Storyhill hits an undeniable stride on tracks six through nine. The aforementioned "Love Will Find You", "Fallen", "Sacramento", and "Happy Man" are among the record's best moments, and sequenced together form a powerful grouping hard for the remainder of the album to compare to.

Additionally, Cunningham and Hermanson's vocal prowess covers over an unnecessary amount of awkward lyrical phrasing and the occasional bent toward being overly saccharine. For all its praiseworthy qualities, "Give Up the Ghost" includes passages that force lines like "Can you hear me now? / You're cuttin' in and out" and "I haven't seen you in a while / We could hook up somewhere later on" that, even in context, seem clumsy. "For a Song" and "Room in My Heart", as sweet-natured as they may be, push the envelope in the sentimentality category. A listener's opinion of the latter, for example, might depend on their ability to digest statements like "There was a time I’d do anything for you, if your roses went blue I made them red. / It’s not that they’re dead but those flowers don’t bloom. It’s just empty ones, instead. / You should know wherever you go, if you’re lost in the crowd or you’re happy alone / You have my attention whatever I can do / There will always be room in my heart for you". However, it should be noted that despite the presence of these and other minor missteps, the album is worth investigating if for no other reason than to soak up the already alluded to vocal excellence.

Though they have achieved a definite measure of success and have inspired a devoted following, Storyhill has not historically been a group for the masses, and barring a reversal of industry trends, they likely never will be. This album's eleven tracks do not provide enough evidence to suggest it can convert a legion of new fans not previously disposed to enjoying gentler, acoustic folk/pop textures. However, those who appreciate magnificent vocal harmonies and/or are looking to be reminded of the purest elements of music in a fresh context will likely be well satisfied by Cunningham and Hermanson's abilities to bring such elements to the forefront of their work.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less

Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

In a staid city like Washington, D.C., too many concert programs still stick to the basics. An endless litany of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky concerti clog the schedules and parades of overeager virtuosi seem unwilling to vary their repertoire for blasé D.C. concertgoers. But occasionally you encounter a concert that refreshes your perspective of the familiar. The works presented at The Kennedy Center on 25 October 2017 might be stalwarts of 20th century repertoire, but guest conductor Antonio Pappano, leading the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, reminded us how galvanizing the canonical can still be. Though grandiose executions of Respighi's The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome were the main event, the sold-out crowd gathered to see Martha Argerich perform one of her showpieces, Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.