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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