Click to hear: “Tankful of gas”
Cancel the sophomore slump story. Harpswell Sound’s second full-length is anything but a disappointment. Picking up right where they left off with their debut release, Skylight, the band delivers Let’s go anyway, a collection of 13 literate, rootsy songs that rock.
It’s hard to fathom how they pulled this off while also working on an as-yet-unreleased children’s album and breaking in new bassist Kris Day – Jonathan Takami departed amicably late last year. It’s a testament to the professionalism and chops of Day (who also plays in King Memphis and Sean Mencher’s combo) and his new partner in rhythm, the very musical drummer Mike Dank. Dank and Day provide a rock-solid foundation for Let’s go anyway, and their splashes of sonic color add textures and surprises throughout what is easily the best local release of 2006 to date.
Harpswell Sound has a strong command of the rock vocabulary. They use that knowledge to great effect here, referencing the slick, FM pop-rock of the ’70s (“Beside the road”); the dirty, guitar-driven surf-rock of the late ’60s (“Ride”); the quick-picked shuffles of the late ’50s (“Skitter”); and the indie-rock aesthetic of the last few decades (“Crockpot” and “Bang”). Hearing Harpswell Sound take these diverse influences and make them their own is one of this album’s many joys.
The principal vocals and instruments on Let’s go anyway were recorded live last January, in the acoustically splendid North Yarmouth Academy choir room. Legendary indie-rock figure Kramer (the producer/musician who’s worked with Low, Sonic Youth, Galaxie 500, Bongwater, Half Japanese, etc., etc.) did the final mixing and mastering at Noise Miami.
In a remarkable and fortuitous example of cyber networking, it was Kramer who contacted Harpswell Sound after he heard songs posted on the band’s MySpace page. Kramer mixed the just-recorded batch of tunes that would become Let’s go anyway, and a few weeks later, he contacted the band to ask how they’d feel about him adding some Hammond B3 organ.
Not a problem? Good, he replied, I already did it.
Halfway through the first track, “All the same,” it’s clear Kramer hasn’t lost his magic touch. His dripping B3 fills are a perfect addition to the band’s already rich sound. And on “Tankful of gas,” the organ-driven bridge is groovy and fun, taking both the song and the band to a new level without overshadowing either.
Collaborating with Kramer was a stroke of luck, to be sure, but Let’s go anywayis first and foremost Harpswell Sound’s shining achievement. Listening to these songs, you realize why someone with Kramer’s resume would go out of his way to work with this relatively unknown Maine band.
Lead vocalist and principal lyricist Trey Hughes has written a fine batch of songs about family, love, loss, and home, set against the seasons and shifting weather of Portland. Hughes sings with his trademark disregard for traditional melody and inflection, a style that forces the listener to take notice and regard his voice as an instrument – alongside Ron Harrity’s swirling and inventive guitar leads – as well as a vehicle for his lyrics.
“The sun’s stretched out/And drenched a few clouds/I could spend the whole day on the stairs to our house/But days like this/Get filled up so quick/With food-finding missions, errands, and lists,” he sings on “Tankful of gas.” “I miss you now/I knew that I would/And I know sometimes/Missing you’s good/It takes more than time to stay in one place/We’ll find you again, oh our traveling days.”
Hughes is in peak form as a writer and vocalist on “More than rain,” a tender father-daughter song that’s arguably the most hummable tune on the album. “It takes your whole arm…/To put the hair out of your eyes…/You’ll run around and turn…/When you hear a song you like…/It takes more than rain…/To slow or bring you down…/Though all I’d have to say…/’Hot chocolate, how’s that sound?'”
These songs are full of clouds, cold, snow, rain, puddles. “And all the leaves/Pushed like a sweater pushes sleeves/Up the arm of the street,” Hughes sings on “Crockpot.” “Crockpots, window frost, and wool socks/The sun shines all the time, but never heats up.”
Like many great rock bands, Harpswell Sound is graced with a secondary lyricist who brings his own gifts to the party. In addition to his fantastic turns on guitar throughout Let’s go anyway, Harrity has written two pop gems for the record, “Bang” and the acoustic “Walking rabbits.” His songs provide a nice change of pace in the middle of the album, book-ending the driving instrumental “Ride.”
“Can’t you hear the forest band?/twilight time will bring the crowd to the stands,” Harrity sings on “Walking rabbits.” “How I love to hear them croon, out of tune/like only rabbits do.”
— Tom Flynn
Let’s go anyway is available in stores May 30. Harpswell Sound plays a CD release party, with Dan Blakeslee and Dead End Armory, on Sat., June 3, at Geno’s, 625 Congress St., Portland, at 9 p.m. (21+) Call 221-2382 for more info.