With Jeff Mangum having apparently closed the doors of his Neutral Milk Hotel for the foreseeable future, further compounding the ongoing diaspora of the Elephant 6 collective, there has been an unfortunate lull in the release of cryptic indie-folk albums. Sure, Will Oldham is still keeping the faith on the surreally rustic front, but it still seems like the pastures are mighty desolate this time of year. Luckily, Modest Mousekateer Isaac Brock has been doing some legwork for us, passing along tapes of Ugly Casanova bandmate John Orth’s new project to the folks at Sub Pop. Dubbing themselves Holopaw, Orth and his four fellow Floridians might very well have delivered on the genre’s first genuine breakthrough for 2003.
Although Wilco has gone a long way on their last two albums towards making pedal steel guitars and synthesizers sound like kissing cousins, it’s amazing just how suitable the whirring synths of the opening “Abraham Lincoln” sound, mixing in with the minor key strums of an acoustic guitar and Orth’s somewhat difficult, though evocative verse. From the start, Orth’s songwriting is notable for its strangely cryptic and elliptical verse, creating a strangely uneasy aura that finds balance with the understated lilt of the arrangements and his clear, strong voice.
Mitigating the lyrics’ more impenetrable qualities, most of the arrangements are founded upon a surprisingly stripped down aesthetic, from the warm shuffling drums of the folkified “Igloo Glass” to the airy, pristine textures and odd time signatures of “Short-Wave Hum (Stutter).” In short, one gets the rather perplexing impression that Orth is pulling the listeners toward him with the welcoming tones while keeping them at arm’s length with the existential vagaries of the lyrics.
Most of the time, it’s difficult to know exactly what Orth is going on about, although images of fawns, loquats, and appaloosas turn up more than once. Mixing in the occasional disturbingly descriptive passage, the resulting ethos seems to be one of confusion and unease, and the alternately lush, warm textures and coldly atmospheric tones echo this. To be sure, the range of textures found on the album is admirable, as the number of players and instruments employed keeps the pace and temper of the album pleasantly unpredictable. As would be expected, Isaac Brock stops by to drape a little mandolin over the soft pedal steel and sad cello of “Pony Apprehension.”
Ultimately, Holopaw probably has about as much in common with Time Fades Away-era Neil Young as they do with any of the roots-psych bands of the last ten years. It’s probably not enough to start a crypto-fuzz-folk revival, but albums this uniformly solid deserve a wider audience than those who are likely to pick it up simply because of the Ugly Casanova/Modest Mouse connection. But if such unconventionally haunting and dizzying textures ultimately prove to be as surreally hypnotizing as intended, Holopaw’s sonic paradoxes will warrant repeated listens.
Written by Matt Fink.