While the music tends to play it safe at times, the Acorn's debut album finds other ways to win us over.
After they released no fewer than five EPs since 2003 and established a reputation both locally and across their home country of Canada through touring and college radio exposure, expectations were obviously high when Ottawa, Ontario's the Acorn finally got down to recording their official debut full-length album. And considering how much promise past releases like Blankets! and Tin Fist showed, Canadian indie scenesters had every right to be intrigued. So to many, it comes as no surprise at all that the quintet has delivered the goods on what's turned out to be a very confident first disc for Paper Bag Records, effortlessly combining polite, low-key folk balladry with unique world rhythms and often rousing indie rock. What is surprising, however, is what the band, more specifically singer/lyricist/multi-instrumentalist Rolf Klausener, has to say. You see, while other ambitious bands strive to create a big splash with a sweeping, grandiose statement on their debut (like a certain Montreal band did three years ago), Klausener decided to take a much more personal approach on the new album: paying tribute to his mom.
With a background story that the indie music press will fall head over heels for, Glory Hope Mountain centers on the story of Klausener's mother Gloria Esperanza Montoya (the title is a loose translation of her name), a life that took her from orphanages, domestic abuse, poverty, natural disasters, and death in her native Honduras, to her long journey north, where new, different hardships awaited her. Not so much a straightforward narrative as a casually assembled series of poetic vignettes, it's an album that swiftly sidesteps the usual trappings that bog down most concept albums, thanks primarily to Klausener's skill as a lyricist and a storyteller, as he manages to convey deeply emotional subject matter without resorting to melodrama. And to the credit of the rest of the band, the musical arrangements follow suit, more often than not exercising restraint, save for the odd cinematic crescendo.
Opening track "Hold Your Breath" is a good example of said restraint, Klausener singing in a fragile tenor voice over a musical backdrop that starts with piano, but slowly incorporates more and more instrumentation, until it comes to a graceful, thrumming climax as Klausener contemplates the vibrant Honduran landscape: "The sanctity of soil / Wandering roots and living oils…all around, mountains like diaphragms / The rhythms of a landscape that is breathing."
What drives this album, and which is something that works so well we wish they did it more often, is the embracing of indigenous percussion and rhythms, similar to that of Paul Simon or Björk, on several tracks. Klausener is said to have researched traditional Honduran Garifuna music while writing the album, and one can't help but be swept up in the pulsating beats that dominate such standout tracks as the beautiful, gently rousing "Crooked Legs" and the sprightly shuffle of "Low Gravity", the latter of which is clouded over effectively by distorted percussion and atonal viola notes. Meanwhile, when the focus isn't on rhythms, Klausener, Jeff Debutte, Keiko Deveaux, T. Jeffrey Malecki, Howie Tsui, and a veritable broken social scene of guest musicians keep things from slipping into indie rock predictability, the usual acoustic and electric guitar often taking a backseat to more varied instrumentation. Whether it's banjo, ukulele, lapsteel, marimba, or cello, though, it never sounds forced or contrived.
If there's one song that forms the emotional core of the album, it's the stirring "Flood Pt. 1". Over chanted background vocals, handclaps, and a distinct African flavor to the acoustic guitar and percussion, Klausener sings his best lyrics on the album, creating an unforgettable, often chilling image of his young mother surviving a flood: "The rushing river rattlesnakes your legs…You lick your lips and paddle for the levee / The singing banks are sifting through your teeth." With a straight-ahead rock arrangement serving as an instrumental refrain, it's a sumptuous blend of folk and rock, a song that revels in its eccentricity but is never bogged down by musical pretensions.
Glory Hope Mountain's only fault is that the more vibrant moments that we hear on "Flood", Crooked Legs", "Low Gravity", or "Antenna" don't sprout up more often. But even its more pedestrian songs like "Plateau Ramble", "Flood Pt. 2", and "Lullaby (Mountain)" glow ebulliently, thanks to Klausener's winning, sincere vocal delivery and of course, those heartfelt lyrics. Not quite a masterpiece, it's still a minor triumph for the young band, and we can only hope to pay tribute to our own mothers so adoringly.