Even if you’re a music snob, you have to admit that the level of craft on the HawtHorns’ new album Morning Sun – streaming at Spotify – is impressive. On one hand, their irresistibly catchy brand of Americana rock is as predictable as the disintegration of the polar icecaps. On the other, their lyrics are a cut above average, the musicianship is smart and purposeful, and the production is purist and surprisingly imaginative. They’re the kind of band that seem to be engineered to get crowdsourced onto personal Spotify playlists. Now, Spotify’s own playlisters won’t go near the HawtHorns’ album – because they’re not allowed to. Only corporate product, or older music still in the hands of the skeleton crew at what’s left of the corporate music labels, is permitted on official Spotify playlists. That’s the deal with the devil that Spotify made to get into the American market. But you can put the HawtHorns on your own playlists, and check them out live at the small room at the Rockwood on August 9 at 7 PM.
The album’s first track, Shaking, opens with a big splash of guitar. Frontwoman KP Hawthorn sings this bittersweet pick-up-the-pieces-and-go-on tune. The jangle and strum of her husband Johnny’s acoustic and electric guitars builds to one of their typically anthemic choruses:
We were shaking
When we should have been swaying
We were screaming
When we should have been singing
“The trail is overgrown, and the path was not her own,” KP sings of the “queen of the desperados” lurching down Rebel Road. Is there gonna be an organ on the second chorus? Bring it on! That’s the way this formula works.
The album’s charmingly waltzing title track has a tense blend of acoustic and Telecaster, and a lusciously icy guitar solo played through what sounds like a vintage analog chorus pedal. They put a charge into a bluegrass melody with Give Me a Sign, then the band put a little more grit on the bass and a loose-limbed swing into the syncopation of the vengeful breakup ballad Broken Wings.
The 405 is not the obscure Steve Wynn classic, but a folk-rock counterpart to the ersatz Californiana of John Mayall’s Blues From Laurel Canyon – look it up if you must. Johnny breaks out his vintage 80s chorus box for All I Know – and are those woozy textures filtering from a 35-year-old Juno synth, or just a clever digital imitation?
The nocturnal resonance of the slide guitar in tandem with echoey Rhodes piano in Come Back From the Stars is a tasty touch: this catchy cut wouldn’t be out of place on a Jessie Kilguss album. On one hand, Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore is all too true: tunesmithing is a dying art, and there’s less money in it than ever. On the other, the idea of striking gold with a catchy song was always a pipe dream: even Elvis Costello had to take a cheesy tv talk-show gig to pay the bills.
The group close the record with the slow, hazy sway of Steady Fire and then the cheery front-porch folk duet Lucky Charm. If this is what the future of cross-country roadtrip soundtracks is going to be like, things could be a lot worse.