For the past five years or so, Hannah Vs. the Many have earned a reputation for incendiary live shows and brilliant albums equally informed by noir cabaret, punk, art-rock and theatre music, with a dash of magic realism. Frontwoman/multi-instrumentalist Hannah Fairchild might not just be the best songwriter in New York: she might be the best songwriter anywhere in the world. Her torrential volleys of lyrics have stiletto wit, sardonic and often savage double entendres, and a towering angst that sometimes boils over into raw wrath. While her writing reflects elements of purist Carl Newman powerpop, epic Paul Wallfisch grandeur and Neko Case noir, she’s a stronger and more eclectic writer than any of them with the possible exception of the Botanica frontman. Her wounded wail is one of the most riveting and dramatic voices in New York as well. Originally a keyboardist, she was writing brooding acoustic guitar songs almost from the moment she first picked up the instrument, then pulled a band together and the rest is history.
Their debut, All Our Heroes Drank Here, made the shortlist of the best albums of 2012 here; the follow-up, Ghost Stories ranked high on that list two years later. Their latest release, Cinemascope, draws its inspiration from classic film from over the decades. In terms of vast lyrical scope, genre-defying sophistication and sheer catchiness, it’s the best rock record of the year (caveat: Karla Rose & the Thorns have one in the can that hasn’t hit yet). Hannah Vs. the Many are playing the album release show at around 9 this Saturday, Nov 19 at Bushwick Public House at 1288 Myrtle Ave; the closest train is the M to Central Ave.
The opening track, Smoke Is Rising begins as a pensive art-rock ballad, Fairchild adding a jazz tinge with her piano, and builds to a noisy metallic inferno. It follows the same arc as the suicide jumper in Fairchild’s similarly searing All Eyes on Me; this one’s about a woman’s self-immolation, and every metaphor that could imply. When Fairchild intones, “You notice me, don’t you?” it’s just as much a condemnation of those who would watch without intervening as it is a cynical comment on depressive self-absorption.
Lovely Resolution blends elements of Nordic valkyrie metal, punk and classic garage rock, carried by Fairchild’s melismatic shriek. It ponders questions of authenticity and motives in revolutionary politics, it’s the most punk track on the album, and it’s a good anthem in this surreal post-election netherworld. And it’s optimistic:
We are the preface of a new day rising
Last year’s hope
This year’s trash
Next year’s gods
Carl Limbacher’s bubbly bass opens the bitter Cameo, a chronicle of a flirtation to rival the crunching cynicism of the Church’s For a Moment We’re Strangers, tense blue-flame jangle giving way to an explosive chorus. Fairchild has written about the inspiration for these songs in a series of poignant, sometimes shockingly revealing blog posts; this one was spiringboarded by a late-night hookup thwarted by too much alcohol.
I won’t be remembered
I won’t be remembered
Curling up and drifting off under blanket statements
Draw near help me fight this chill
Resolutions wearing thin
Morals bending backwards
Don’t stay, only say you will
The skittish new wave that opens The Auteur gives way to stomping, lickety-split punk. Like much of Fairchild’s work, this one casts a cold eye on how men expect women to subsume themselves, how some women do so willingly, and at great expense. It’s also very funny:
Once we’re discovered the question will ever be
Which of us settled for whom?
It’s uninspired at best, another biblical fall
You’re unravelling under surveillance
And now we’ll all place our bets
On if you’ll come when you’re called
The saddest, quietest and most radical change for Fairchild here is Chiaroscuro. It’s a muted country song with a banjo, of all things, a chronicle of a family trip to a Washington, DC historic site as well as the divorce that followed years later, a psychological autopsy of Midwestern stoicism worthy of Upton Sinclair:
Every child becomes a murderer in time
We take our leave of absence and we scatter from our homes
They offer contrast, these killers out of context
Someone else’s brother has been chiseled into stone
Not ours, though.
The hard-charging Hotel Empire, as Fairchild has explained, is the album’s turning point. Up to now, the songs have mainly chronicled women trying to be good. All the narratives after this are from anti-heroines. It’s also the climactic song in a suite inspired by what was probably a horribly abusive real-life relationship. Fairchild uses the plotline from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, from the point of view of the Kim Novak character, as the springboard for this harrowing conclusion. “Go on. I said I’m fine,” is the mantra.
Surrender Dorothy is the key to the album, a lickety-split look at the madonna/whore dichotomy through the prism of high school musicals (Fairchild had quite a successful career as a stage actress while still in her teens). It sounds like Patti Smith backed by the UK Subs:
Cinderella’s sisters tell us
Nothing in the final edit
‘Cause we left them blinded, bled and
Screaming through the rolling credits
Made a mistake, played it straight
How many punchlines til she breaks?
Splitting on seams, no reprieve
What I get is what you see
Max Tholenaar-Maples’ scrambling drums and Fairchild’s distorted guitar keep the punk rock going fulll-throttle in Murder Darling, bookending Wells Albritton’s brief, moody electric piano interlude. It’s another example of Fairchild at her most savagely hilarious and spot-on:
Flash right back to a boy in need of applause
Evading playground taunts
From bright young things with eyes rolled
Beat that track! Daddy said you’re whatever you want
And how that promise haunts
NSFW revisits love-as-war metaphors, both musically and lyrically, shifting between a sarcastic march and wounded jangle:
Isn’t it strange?
What information you chose to retain?
All of my fears, none of my wit
Drape me in jealousy tailored to fit
Lining your walls
Faces you’ve earned
Duchesses hanging themselves on your word
Women of rank I have surpassed
Kopfkino makes a harrowing coda to the album, an actress at the end of her rope in a Holocaust milieu whose ending you can’t see coming, but which brings the song cycle full circle. In terms of sheer ambition, epic grandeur and cruel insight, there’s no other album that’s been released this year that comes close to this one.