Among the spontaneous, opinionated chatter that records induce in those charged to write about them, it’s nice to think that, once in a while, we might give the odd music buyer an objective heads-up as to what they’re getting with an album. Never has that felt easier than it is with Houndmouth‘s debut, From The Hills Below The City. It’s as simple as this: if you’re a fan of country-rock, Americana or even a bit of folk now and again, give it a try. If you’re not, it’s likely that you’re going to be totally unmoved.
This album is so firmly rooted in the old-school rock and roll landscape that it almost – almost – feels like a joke. Half of the problem with this is that the listener is consistently occupied with mentally chasing down the bands that the four-piece evoke. The Band, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, New Riders of the Purple Sage; the influence-spotting is endless and of a very distinct type. Questions of similarity flood in from all sides, providing an entertaining diversion at first, until a glance at the running time reveals two thirds of the album has disappeared while the name games have been going on. It doesn’t really let up and, as the tracks pass, the time left for a number to appear that doesn’t play out like a tribute to the late 60s and early 70s starts to evaporate alarmingly.
Abounding with soaring, sing-along choruses, eruptions of three-step harmonies and controlled, forceful guitar licks, some might expect the lyrics to kick away from the syrup-thick accent and provide the record with a few stylistic curveballs. They’d be disappointed. “I had a job, had to leave behind me/I had to move to another city” wails the rootsy conjunction of Matt Myers and Katie Toupin on first single, “On The Road”. Next, on “Come on Illinois”, the refrain “it’s a long way just to make it to the borderline” is the big rusty axle around which the track revolves. “Penitentiary” is the tale of a down-and-outer who ‘couldn’t score a job’ and so ‘took that train to Houston’. You get the idea.
It’s not much of a surprise to find that the band have been touring with, and opening for, Rough Trade label mates Alabama Shakes; they sound exactly like the kind of act one might expect to provide support for Brittany Howard’s outfit – or, rather, precisely the kind of group a cynic would have you believe should act as warm-up for such a band; being a little more derivative, a little more in thrall to their influences, a little lacking in originality.
But is that really all as bad as such naysayers would have us believe? When you get past the initial reactions of, “now, who the hell does this sound like?” and go round again, the songs are still catchy, the record is well produced, and the band manage to avoid a free-fall into hopeless mimicry thanks to their sincere, passionate infatuation with their beloved genres. What you’re left with, once the dust has settled on the bittersweet swell of “Palmyra”, is an album of perfectly presentable, old-fashioned rock. It makes absolutely no demands, pretends to be nothing but what it is and in that, carries a certain charm. It also carries a big fat dividing line with it as obtrusively prominent as its musical genealogy. Are you a classic rock fan or not? For anyone unsure, have a listen to this and see which side you end up on.