Click to hear: “Color Spills In”
Fall on the Honey Clouds is the much-anticipated sophomore release from the Portland indie-rock quartet Honey Clouds. The bulk of the songs appeared in earlier versions on last year’s Earl Grey Demos, which was recorded live over the course of a day in their practice space. Though the practice-space recordings did a fine job showcasing the band’s strengths, Demos left the impression that only a professional studio production would reveal the full potential of their eminent sound.
Luckily, Honey Clouds lead guitarist Ron Harrity is one of the best studio engineers in town. The production on Fall on the Honey Clouds shimmers, expanding those spots on Demos that seemed hastily put together or still on the verge of completion.
The opener, “Living Room,” bursts in with feedback, drums, and a gang of shouted “nah-nah-nah” vocals. In its prior incarnation, a guitar lead overpowered the intro; here, there’s no guitar and the vocals are beaming, right up front. The modification is slight, but it gives the song a fresher, more carousing feel. The group vocals end in screams as the rest of the instruments join in. Singer-guitarist Trey Hughes’ vocals are focused, and about as animated as he gets. It’s a strong opener, as catchy as it is surprising.
The songwriting gets more jagged with the next track, “Branch is Green.” Two noisy guitars and Sean Wilkinson’s loping drumming drive the verses, speeding up for the euphoric, springtime chorus:
“Everyone’s strolling with a blissed-out face / And there’s a swarm of sailboats carving up the bay / I don’t know the name of a whole lot of plants / But our garden looks like a box of crayons.”
The musicianship here is solid throughout. On guitar, Harrity and Hughes complement one another the good old-fashioned way: by playing completely different parts. Bassist Mandy Wheeler’s playing is rooted and kempt, occasionally wandering to join one of the other instruments’ melodies.
Wilkinson [one of The Bollard’s art directors and a co-founder of this publication] plays with refreshing restraint on this record. An engineering feat worth mentioning is Harrity’s method of recording drums quietly and then turning them up in the mix, rather than having Wilkinson beat the shit out of them and then turning the volume down. This keeps the songs grounded and gives the drums a soft, yet distinct timbre.
Hughes’ lyrics depict the simple pleasures in life, like walking in nature and finishing household chores. The chilled-out, countrified ambler “Lunch Detour” takes us on a stroll down a hill, over cobblestones, through a cemetery, and then back into the cogs of the city, Hughes’ voice growing a bit worrisome as it observes the urban clamor. The production on this track is particularly good. Warm keyboards and pedal-steel guitar evoke senses of indirection and tranquility, while bells and twangy guitar bring to mind The Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning.”
“Color Spills In” is one of the album’s greatest accomplishments. The improvements to the demo version are substantial, including the prominence of Wheeler’s vocal, sharper and clearer guitar parts, and a catchy organ line laid down during the outstanding chorus: “Oh, but the air smells clean / Yeah, it just rained / There’s a slight chill lingering on these hills / Just above the ridge / Color spills in…”
If there’s one thing Fall on the Honey Clouds lacks, it’s enough vocals from Wheeler. When present, her voice accompanies Hughes’ beautifully. There are plenty of parts that would have benefited from her singing a co-lead or backup.
Just as you’d expect, Honey Clouds saves the seven-minute, washed-out epic for the end. “Reception” sounds like it could have been a B-side from Built to Spill’s Perfect From Now On sessions. There’s a slight, muffled delay on Hughes’ voice (one of the few vocal effects on the album). As Wilkinson steadily taps away at his kit, the song builds up and down, eventually streamlining into a hazy guitar jam to close out the album.
The timing of this release is impeccable. I recommend listening to it on foot. Before you know it, you’ll be inside the songs, walking under the cherry blossoms, taking long detours.
Honey Clouds plays a CD release show on Sat., May 23, at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland, with openers The RattleSnakes and Gully, at 9 p.m. Tix: $6 (18+). 828-5600. For more on the band, visit myspace.com/honeyclouds.