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Revisiting a Folk Noir Classic by Hungrytown

It might seem absurd that folk noir duo Hungrytown’s latest album Further West – streaming at Bandcamp -made the Best Albums of 2015 page here, yet never got a full writeup. That’s because if they made it to town last year, they did that before the album came over the transom. Where it sat, and sat, and sat, and that’s a crime: it’s by far their most vivid and intense album, in fact one of the most darkly memorable releases of the past many months.

Since the early zeros, singer Rebecca Hall and her multi-instrumentalist husband Ken Anderson have been working the darker corners of the folk milieu. Their most recent album before this, 2011’s Any Forgotten Thing took an impressively erudite detour into period-perfect 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelic folk. This release is a return to their elegant acoustic roots, more or less, although a couple of the most quietly lingering tracks also explore the band’s psychedelic side. The elegantly waltzing, understatedly menacing title cut sets the stage:

Rocks in my pocket
Blood on the stairs
Followed you down to the sea

And the story only gets better from there. Hall’s calm, collected narrator eventually intimates that she’s leaving the crime scene for parts further west simply because she’s got better things to do.

The album’s version of Hard Way to Learn – the chilling opening track on Hall’s excellent 2000 solo album Rebecca Hall Sings! – gets a slightly bulked-up remake, awash in lush, multitracked harmonies, propelled by Anderson’s steady banjo and Lissa Scheckenburger’s stark fiddle. In Sometime, Hall turns on her pillowiest, most understatedly wounded delivery, anchored by funereal organ, revisiting a theme of learning the hard way:

Rushing through my brightest hour but favoring the dark
Believing every undying word is justified in part

Hall doesn’t bother to change any of the lyrics to fit a woman’s voice for a stark take of the old British folk ballad, Don’t You Let Me Down, and the result is even more surreal than the original. And the bit about how “the bank man stole it all away” makes it even more relevant, here at the end of the real estate bubble era. The harrowingly catchy Day for Night takes that theme further into the present:

Losing streak, trying to sail, over dry land
Losing sleep, promise to pay, no money in hand
And the cold’s rolling in from the north…
So many ways, ways to go wrong, so we just go along
And the trucks run their engines all night
We’ll sleep in the glare of the streetlight

Hall and Anderson duet a-cappella and keep that hardscrabble ambience going with the bitter migrant work lament Pastures of Plenty. They pick up the pace with the Lynchian vintage C&W of Don’t Cross That Mountain, the bit of extra reverb on Hall’s voice matched by Anderson’s ominously echoey guitar. Then they revisit the indian summer psychedelia of their previous album with the hypnotic, uneasily starlit Highway Song:

Moon rolls down the highway
Playing hide and seek
Stop along the meadow
Tickling his cheek

Suzanne Mueller’s austere cello underpins the stately, heartbroken minor-key waltz Ramparts and Bridges. Anderson’s twinkling electric piano mingles with low-key fingerpicked guitar on Static, an enigmatic night drive that might or might not be a sequel to the title track: “I know how you feel to have lost every signal you once had,” Hall intones gently. The album ends up with the elegantly trad Eastward Forests, Westward Hills and then the spare, menacingly aphoristic Troubles in Between:

December, sorry, slept right through.
January, missed you too.
Sped past March, April and May
Sometimes it’s best to keep away

Not only is this one of the best albums of 2015, if’s one of the best of the decade, if anybody’s counting. Hungrytown’s next gig is actually sort of close to home, a free outdoor show tonight at 6:30 PM at Harborfront Park, 101A East Broadway in Port Jefferson, Long Island.

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Hungrytown Leaves You Wanting More

You’ve heard the joke: the greatest songwriter of all time is Anonymous. But songs like Long Black Veil and John Henry didn’t spontaneously appear around a campfire somewhere on the great plains or on an Appalachian mountain trail: somebody actually wrote them. The songs on Hungrytown’s latest album Any Forgotten Thing have that kind of resonance. The duo of Rebecca Hall and Ken Anderson have immersed themselves in classic American folk music to the point where they’ve been able to pick up where those regrettably uncredited songsters left off. This effort is rustic, yet in the moment: decades from now, if there’s anyone alive, Hall’s broodingly aphoristic songs will be remembered as the folk music of the early part of the 21st century. Her nonchalantly lilting yet minutely nuanced vocals pack a quiet wallop, as does her casually purist tunesmithing, while Anderson’s elegant mandolin, percussion and harmonies match the subtlety of the songwriting. This isn’t the kind of music you hear at Starbucks although some of it might someday be played in the ruins of one.

The album opens with Year without a Summer, a creepily blithe waltz that makes a great companion piece to the Rasputina classic. “I gave myself up at the age of 13,” Hall sings with a chilling matter-of-factness. We all know what happened to spring in 1816 – and the scariest part is that the rest of this song could easily be true. The next cut, Rolling Train explores a slightly less intense kind of unease: “You are a sleeping town in the middle of the night, and I am a whistle blowing in the morning light,” Hall sings with cheshire cat seriousness – it’s a song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Laura Cantrell songbook. The potently metaphorical Never Realized, a gentle look back in anger and regret is another one that evokes Cantrell, while the title track, a bouncy folk-rock shuffle, makes a great follow-up to John Prine’s Hello In There. Here, Hall’s aging narrator doesn’t see fit to wind the clock on the mantle, although she is eager to replace the doorbell. Touches like that are typical here.

A couple of tracks here are studies in jealousy: Make It All Work Out, which walks the fine line between funny and suicidal, and Sally Lazy, which shares that song’s swirly, psychedelic keyboards but ends on a slightly more optimistic note. Banjo mingling hypnotically with echoey Fender Rhodes piano, Just Like a Song contemplates daily ironies, while Calliope, a phantasmagorical waltz, evokes Judy Henske’s most menacing, trippy late 60s work. As usual, Hall’s metaphors are on a time-delay fuse, whether in Falling Star, where she hopes the meteorite had a soft landing, or in the fatalistic Under a Broken Sun, which (maybe intentionally, maybe not) perfectly and poetically capsulizes life during the early global warming era. The album ends with the gorgeous folk-pop gem Like You Do and The Sweetest Flower, a perfectly lovely (and perfectly bitter) a-cappella duet that sounds straight out of the Appalachians circa 1860. Whether traditional Americana, recent Nashville gothic like the Handsome Family or Mark Sinnis, or the more psychedelic side of 60s folk-rock is your thing, this album is a treat.