(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Recording review: Hawk and Dove, This Yesterday Will Never End (2013)

Impressive music can't save stilted vocals and awkward lyrics

It’s a dualistic world; every entity contains its own ideal as well as its negation. Normally one eclipses the other, yielding success or failure. On This Yesterday Will Never End, Hawk and Dove hold both in near equal measure. Their music is powerful, showing off the versatility of the band, but it still can’t gloss over the stilted vocals and strained metaphors. Lead singer Elijah Miller is too consciously poetic. His lyrics favor cryptic allusion and he has a David Sedaris delivery style that turns his lines into awkward proclamations that can’t bear close scrutiny. Jim Morrison overcame bombastic self-indulgence through force of personality and Robyn Hitchcock’s eccentric charm transforms his studied quirkiness, but Miller hasn’t found his formula. Occasionally, well-turned phrases bubble up, like, “And every wall inside the house was leaking from the paint/ And every drop was practicing amnesia on its way” in “Things We Lost So Far”, but it’s hard to tease meaning from the jumbled imagery.

It’s frustrating because their instrumental work is so satisfying. In contrast to the tortured lyrics, the band’s music supports a range of nuanced moods from sparse thoughtfulness to snarling catharsis. Their arrangements evolve over the course of a song, with surprising turns. From the rising swell of feedback on the opening track, “Send Your Blood To War”. I was prepared to fall in love with Hawk and Dove. The resonant guitar whine was tethered by a thread of sustained organ as Miller’s stylized phrasing added to the strained tension. The lead off verse almost hangs in space until it drops into overdriven, shoe-gazer rock. This resolution is tainted by the contrast between Miller’s precise enunciation and the barely controlled fury of the music. Still, the slow grinding rhythm and discordant tones capture a rich sense of internal conflict, which is appropriate, given the vague and ambiguous lyrics. They could equally apply to someone joining a jihad or becoming a conscientious objector. Whether it’s a clever attempt to make a meta-statement or just to avoid commitment, it feels immature.

The band follows it up with “Song For Him”, which is just as exasperating. Once again, the music hits the spot as it borrows a sense of expectancy from the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”. Then the tune shifts through a chain of moods, with the yearning ache of violin or determined throb of drumming and staccato guitar. The lyrics run through a matching free-association set of images. The chorus offers the only hint of meaning, with Miller dealing with his daddy issues. I liked his use of biblical allusion, but the explicit contradiction is confusing: “Father Abraham, you should have followed through/ Father Abraham, you should have stopped because you wanted to.” Is he saying that Abraham should have sacrificed Isaac despite God letting him off the hook or that he should have defied God in the first place? Ultimately, the question is moot; I’d rather follow the instrumental ride and blow off the vocals.

The best melding of music and words comes with “The Space Between”. The opening drone and chiming notes are pensive, fitting the first words, “I do not know how to speak, but I can talk to you all night.” The hesitant beginning picks its way through an odd path of chords to find itself blossoming into an introspective pop groove, where female backing vocals offer a counterpoint response to Miller’s lead. The interplay of voices layer with islands of instrumental parts into a dense thicket of sound. After a contemplative dynamic drop, the tune grows in volume and chaotic energy. The vocals become hoarse trying to keep up, “I do not know how to move, but you are closer than before/ You are near the air I breath, you can warm the coming breeze.” The song swirls out in a spiraling cloud of wailing guitar, barely held together by the insistent drums. The tune fades into dying embers of reverberation.

Guitarist John Kleber has talked about Miller’s ability to hold an audience rapt and how that inspired their collaboration. Maybe that stage charisma just doesn’t come through in the studio. That said, Kleber shouldn’t sell himself short. Based on the mulligan’s stew of stylistic references on This Yesterday Will Never End – folk, garage rock, country and psychedelia – Hawk and Dove’s instrumental work could carry a whole album

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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