Mumford & Sons and Kings of Leon present a fantastic economic opportunity for bands like Houndmouth. The New Albany, Indiana (just outside of Loiusville) quartet isn’t so different from the scads of folk-rock bands that have filled out festival lineups for the past half decade: Blitzen Trapper, The Lumineers, The Weeks, Band Of Horses, The Avett Brothers, Horse Feathers, Anais Mitchell, Laura Stephenson, Kathleen Edwards, The Belle Brigade, and 1 2 3 all could make reasonable cases for having albums just as good or better as Houndmouth’s debut LP, From the Hills Below the City.
Yet with the exception of The Lumineers (who have very properly cashed in) and The Weeks (who’s newest record leaves them still in limbo), only Houndmouth seems properly positioned to take advantage of the folk-rock supernova that Mumford and Leon (and their major label handlers) hath wrought upon the music landscape.
Which is not to say Houndmouth is aggressively generic.
The band’s ability to shift to and from any of its three singers keeps From the Hills from wearing thin over its 12 tracks.
Keyboard player Katie Toupin shines the brightest, partly because she’s such a dead ringer for “& Her Boyfriends-era” Neko Case. Her free-base-using-stomp-romp “Casino” floats above the glut of stompers Houndmouth has due to the strength of her delivery—never weak, never afraid of the words coming out of her mouth. Yet for all Toupin’s strengths, she’s still mostly a positive echo back to stronger mold-breakers like Case.
Toupin’s limitations are microcosms of those that betray themselves on The Hills Below the City, which itself is manifestation of Houndmouth’s primary songwriting shortcoming—its influences are way too easy to spot.
Does that make the first half of From the Hills any less enjoyable? Not necessarily. Up until the end of “Ludlow,” the band’s Dixieland-steampunk-rock thoroughly pulse pounds—even the two separate and well constructed, if unimaginative, solos on “Hey Rose” delay the tiresome feeling. Having a good time listening to From the Hills involves a certain amount of imagination, though, since the songs clearly will work better in a live setting, when subtle changes in tempo and pace can be more easily detected.
Delineating the differences between the excellent opening numbers on From the Hills requires too close a microscope. “On the Road” has more piano plinks, “Come On Illinois” more atmosphere, “Penitentiary” is basically a The Band song, and “Casino” has Toupin. But for the most part, they trade on the same scales—pounding, bluesy guitar, gorgeous vocal harmonies, heavy doses of Wurlitzer organs, and full-figured half-time choruses with cymbals to plump up the atmosphere.
References to coal mine towns and steam trains don’t date or make a novelty of Houndmouth for most of From the Hills’ running time. But like nearly all of the elements on the record, the second half is where exhaustion sets in.
Other than the vocal harmonies, which are the only excellent, non-exhaustive tool in Houndmouth’s shed (and they are on full display on “Houston Train”), the second half of From The Hills bears a little bit too close a thematic resemblance to Mumford & Sons’ records—woozy retreads of what made side one so alive. References to “Robert Roy’s” and “Gypsy trains” become less artful scene-setting and more tiresome reference point. Just when “Palmyra” is enjoying a calming, heartfelt R&B solo, the rest of the band interjects to finish off the album the way each of its songs ends—with an enormous wall of folk-driven noise.
From the Hills Below The City doesn’t quite feel like a missed opportunity, for all its tiresome lame-duckery. Houndmouth’s debut is as much a statement of what the band is than what it can be, considering the impressive talents of the musicians involved. Hills doesn’t have a “Ho, Hey” breakout single, but the band’s festival punch card should be pretty well filled by this summer’s end. Realistically, there’s very little chance of a band this blues-oriented to unseat the behemoths of marginalized folk rock; the fact that there are behemoths of folk-rock means Houndmouth has a better shot than most of making a small splash.
Houndmouth – From the Hills Below The City tracklist:
- “On the Road”
- “Come On Illinois”
- “Hey Rose”
- “Long as You’re At Home”
- “Houston Train”
- “Halfway to Hardinsburg”
- “Comin’ Around Again”